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York farmers win Master Conservationist Award for improving soil health

September 24, 2018

When Scott Gonnerman was young, he dreamed of being a fourth-generation farmer. Little did he know he’d one day be an award-winning one.

Gonnerman and his wife, Barb, received a 2018 Master Conservationist Award from The World-Herald for their efforts in soil health.

“If we don’t change the way we’re farming, then future generations won’t be farming the family farm,” Scott Gonnerman said. “I’m trying to increase soil productivity so that my grandson can make a living farming someday.”

Gonnerman, who farms near York, received the Production Agriculture award, given to those who excel in the use of new, innovative and traditional methods of conservation on a Nebraska farm. For more than 10 years, Gonnerman has experimented with farming methods, working toward water and soil conservation.

“Since we started educating ourselves on how soils function, our driving force for a majority of our farm operation is if it’s going to be healthy for the soil or not,” he said.

In 2008, Gonnerman turned to no-till — a method of farming that doesn’t disturb the soil through tillage. When Gonnerman took over farming his father’s 80 acres, topsoil had been lost to tillage and irrigation erosion.

That same year, Gonnerman stopped using gravity irrigation — a method of irrigation that lets water flow from a higher-level field to a lower level. His goal was to install center-pivot irrigation, where equipment rotates around a pivot and crops are watered with sprinklers. But until the soil had a higher infiltration rate — the speed at which water enters the soil — the pivot wouldn’t make a difference, he said.

In 2009, Gonnerman planted rye grass, his first single-species cover crop, which is planted for the protection and enrichment of the soil. That’s when he developed his mantra: “Every time a combine leaves the field, a planting drill follows.”

“We always plant something after the combine leaves just so we have a living root out there to pump carbon into the soil and feed the living biology,” Gonnerman said.

The cover crops have disrupted the insect cycles enough that Gonnerman doesn’t need to use insecticides, allowing beneficial insects to control invasive pests.

“My farm has to have insect paths and bad fungi, because that’s what the beneficial insects survive on,” Gonnerman said. “If we create the right habitat, then when all the insects and pests come, they will balance themselves out.”

Today, the Gonnermans’ farm includes non-GMO seed with no insecticide or fungicide use. Once he gets his weeds under control, Gonnerman said he will start the process of being certified organic.

Marie Krausnick, water department manager for the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District, nominated the Gonnermans for the award, calling Scott a “pioneer steward” in soil health and conservation in central Nebraska.

“(Scott’s) biggest advocacy, I should say, is his willingness to share what he’s learned through his adoption process to help others better their operation,” Krausnick said.

Krausnick specifically mentioned the Gonnermans’ field days. Each year, they bring in speakers from all over the world, inviting other farmers to come watch demonstrations and learn about soil health.

“It’s so motivating for people to come and to want to learn and to share their experiences as well,” Barb Gonnerman said. “Sometimes, you have to see to believe, and we can do that for folks.”

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