Dave Legvold

eKonomics News Team

Northfield, MN

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Recognized as a 4R advocate for his efforts to safeguard the environment through proper nutrient management, Dave Legvold is a great example of a grower looking to continually improve his operation. He has farmed near Northfield, Minn. for almost 40 years and worked with agriculture students as an educator and mentor to support the agriculture industry at large. His best piece of advice for a young farmer? Rely on your community resources. Not necessary financial, but the personal resources and the potential to build relationships and share wisdom that is out there.

Key crops on your farm: Soybeans and corn

Years in business: This will be my 40th year of farming.

History of the farm

I worked in education for 12 years before I got the itch to move back to the farm in my home community. We felt it would be a great place for our two young, strapping boys to give blood, break bones and raise hell. They fortunately turned out to be decent citizens in the world today — the farm was a great place for them.

When I was in education, I made sure I developed programs to bring students to the farm. We had a week when over 350 students would visit the farm. It was very interesting because what I taught in environmental studies needed to square up with what my students saw on the farm. If they saw something that did not look like what I was teaching them, they would rat you out. It was a wonderful experience to have a living laboratory that the students could come take a look at.

You are a 4R Advocate. Tell me more about the program:

The journey to receive the 4R advocate award really started with me using the environmental tillage system machine called the Soil Warrior. I had used it for some years as a vehicle to manage my fertilizer, keep it in place, use the right rate and put it in the right spot. The company wanted to nominate a farmer for the 4R award. They interviewed me and my agronomist, Ken Thomas. Low and behold, I got a call and said I was a 4R advocate.

It has been a fairly uneventful journey with lots of people doing lots of things to help this process along. There are a lot of people behind the scenes you need to express gratitude to for helping you.

The 4R advocate position carries responsibility to speak to group of people including farmer and environmental groups to tell them what people in agriculture are doing to safeguard the environment through proper nutrient management.

The public perception of agriculture in some areas is not very positive. There are certain hot button words that cause alarm or raised eyebrows. One of those is fertilizer. The perception is that farmers are out dousing their land. That upsets me, just the word dousing. That implies a willy-nilly approach of fertilizing your ground.

So many times, farmers, agronomists and agency people end up talking among themselves. I think we need to do what we can to branch out and encounter the public with a positive message.

What soil characteristics describe the majority of management zones on your farm?

Where I am farming, we have somewhat rolling land. We have variable soil types. I farm land that goes everywhere from sand to dark peaty soils that are poorly drained. The majority of the land is a good loamy soil and is quite workable. It will hold nutrients because I’ve worked to build organic matter. I think the key to holding nutrients is having organic structure in the soil — I farm 800 acres of every kind of soil you can imagine, which means I have to vary my approach.

Minnesota is blessed with a lot of water. We have a lot of streams. The streams are a great conduit of nutrients off the land. I have installed buffers on my properties and practice no-till and strip till so land always has a cover. It has also become apparent that we need to use cover crops. I am not very good at that, but we are working on it.

My journey in farming started with the idealistic approach of that I would like to be an organic farmer producing alfalfa, small grains, corn and soybeans. I also had a beef herd. I soon learned that organic farming requires a great deal of tillage: fall tillage, spring tillage to keep weeds under control. With row crops you are using a cultivator; I found I was losing a great deal of my topsoil through erosion.

It totally disaggregated the soil so it was loose and available for erosion. I looked at that and said this is not good — I will need to do something else. I then made the move to high residue farming. That is where I am today. Residue and old crop roots are dandy protectors of the soil.

What are your primary sources of information for making decisions related to fertilizer use and nutrient management on your farm?

I have a wonderful opportunity because the city we live close to is a two-college town, St. Olaf College and Carlton College. Both are very prestigious schools. Both have wonderful geology and environment studies programs in which students are interested in how agriculture is impacting the environment.

I have mentored college students in their senior thesis or undergraduate project. Their research into soil aggregations, bulk density, nutrient retention, organic matter and porosity of the soil has informed me if what I&rsqui;m doing is the right thing. There is nothing more humbling then to do a nitrogen trial with a student, then have the student come tell me where we applied 300 pounds of nitrogen, you lost money on that. That’s really humbling. However, that is exactly the on-farm research we need. When we talk about the 4R project, I really wish it was the 5R program with the fifth R being research.

My main source of information is on-farm research. I also have a great relationship with my agronomy provider, Ken Thomas at Farmers Mill and Elevator, in Castle Rock, Minn. Between those sources of information, we are getting close to perfect.

Dr. Robert Mullen’s in-depth analysis of the 2015 soil test levels in North America issued by the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) reveals a decline in nutrient balance trends as more Minnesota soils test below the critical level for K and P. Given that information, what are you observing in your region of the state that conflicts with or supports that information?

When I worked with a watershed organization that was associated with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, we worked with a grant project to study the amount of N, P, and K in 25 surface waters in southeast Minnesota. We went for the larger streams. We found the trend over the past three decades is for the P and K presence in surface waters to decline slightly. But, alarmingly, the amount of nitrogen has increased significantly. So, we have a great deal of N going into our waters.

I think the reduction of tillage has a lot to say about keeping P and K on the land. But, nitrogen loves water. It will travel with water. Minnesota is a state where a lot of tiling is going on and has been done. I think taking a look of what we are doing with our nutrients has a significant impact soil quality, soil nutrient levels and what is happening with our surface waters. My experience is that we need to be doing something to manage the nitrate emissions, and keep on doing what we are to reduce tillage and eliminate travel of soil over land because that is how P and K get into our waters.

I think up to a decade ago, agronomic publications and farm magazines were encouraging farmers to build fertility levels in their soil so you had high phosphate and potassium testing soils. I think now we can no longer afford to do that. We can address nutrient retention through tillage practices. We can address high crop production by placing the fertilizer properly so the crop can avail itself of the nutrients. For example, a strip till regime allows you to place the nutrient right where the crop is going to grow.

What is the best part of being a farmer?

According to my wife, the best part would be looking at the little calves during calving season. However, I got out of the beef business. Now the best things are those unmeasurable intangibles that are part of farming. For example, a beautiful sunrise or timely wonderful rain at just the right moment for your crop, taking a walk in the field with your faithful golden retriever, and at the end of the year breathing a sigh of relieve saying, “we made it.”

There is a spiritual aspect of being a farmer. It is hard to quantify or describe because I think everyone’s soul is little different. One sunrise might be beautiful to you but not to me.

What is the most important lesson you have learned as a farmer?

Keep learning. Keep using good input from good people and I think you will do ok.

I read Howard Buffett’s book “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.” He talks about farming as art, skill and just hard grunt work. He then asserts that every farmer gets 40 chances to get it right. Buffett says if you can get it right 40 times, you are doing pretty well. Guess what, this is my 40th year farming — I better get it together this year. I think the 4R system of thinking of my nutrients might help me get it right this year.

What short piece of advice would you give to a new farmer?

I have mentored several new young farmers, most of them organic farmers. They have come to me as the old guy in the neighborhood and asked what advice I have for them as they start farming. I have said, “well, stop tillage.”

“We can’t do that,” they’ve said.

Well, work in that direction so you are not sacrificing your soil. Don’t get addicted to lots of new, shiny paint. There are people who are metal magicians, and they can fix almost anything. Keep your old equipment in good shape. When you feel it is economically sustainable, buy something new.

Go out in the country and get into somebody’s face you respect and ask them questions. Come back over and over. It has worked out well for these young farming families that I have been the old guy in the neighborhood for others. It is not uncommon for someone to drive into my yard at one in the morning, open up my shop, use my welder, do their welding project and then go away. It is that open and welcoming sense of community.

So, I think advice to a young farmer or person going into agriculture is to rely on your community resources. Not necessary financial, but the personal resources that are there.