by Peter Carrels
We’re slowly traveling along an expanse of snowy pasture. It’s been a rough winter in this part of South Dakota, with a parade of blizzards and cold fronts. Foot travel would be treacherous on this icy roadway, but it’s the only route across this prairie. So we crawl ahead in a pickup truck.
The land bordering the two-track is so densely draped by dormant grasses and drifted snow that hiking there would be nearly impossible. On a windless day, a calm settles over the smooth topography. The sun glows yellow-orange, and a cloud-free sky surrounds us in a dome of frigid blue air. If you conjure a romanticized image of the Great Plains in winter, this might be what you visualize.
We’re near latitude 44.6 degrees north, between the 99th and 100th meridian. The county is Hyde, the township is Washington. Though the soils are young and moderately fertile, this glacially-influenced land is brimming with stones. With a few exceptions, grain farmers had steered clear of this area because of its short, dry growing season and all that pesky granite in the ground. But new seed hybrids, lofty commodity prices, a property tax policy that favors grain production, and a generous safety net also known as crop insurance prompted landowners here to remove rocks and plow prairie to grow corn.
This land is owned and carefully managed by Jim Faulstich, whose views on agriculture often depart from the status quo. Faulstich sprinkles conversations about his land ethic with stories of past mistakes that led to improvements and successes. He believes that grasslands and livestock should be integral aspects of a farmer’s land management strategy—and then he modestly adds, “But what do I know?”
Many would say Faulstich is a guy who knows a lot. He’s appeared on a panel with U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited his place—Daybreak Ranch—in 2011 to observe conservation agriculture firsthand. Faulstich has testified before congressional committees, and conservation and agriculture groups often ask him to make presentations and contribute to their idea pools. Forty-plus years of caretaking a place and earning a living off it builds a person’s pragmatic perspective and knowledge.
Faulstich and I were joined by his son-in-law, Adam Roth, a soft-spoken man who works alongside his wife’s dad to run the operation. Adam is at the wheel, and we’re barely out of the farmyard when Faulstich says something that catches me by surprise: “We watch birds to monitor how we’re doing with the land.” Then he rolls off a list of species—bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chicken, ring-necked pheasant and others—that are part of their informal monitoring protocol. “If the birds aren’t doing well,” Faulstich said, “we’re not doing something right. When you run your operation in tune with nature wildlife prospers, and the land prospers, too. That’s what I call managing for the big picture. Some use the word sustainable.”
I’m inclined to associate this sort of eco-talk with farmers and farms that are organic and small. But Daybreak Ranch sprawls over 8,000 acres, including 5,400 acres Faulstich owns, and he grazes between 350 and 500 head of Red Angus cattle on some 5,000 acres of grasslands.
Roth drives until we’re completely surrounded by prairie. All around us on this sunny day the land is covered with grass that glows a gentle brown.
I notice in the far distance white-tail deer trotting from a shelterbelt. They are visible from hoof to head as they cross a field of corn stubble. I am reminded that this area is the new western fringe of the rapidly expanding Corn Belt, where cattle ranching and grain farming butt heads.
I ask about the challenges of incorporating sustainability on an operation so large. Faulstich admits an ongoing learning curve. “We’re always looking for ways to be better stewards, to create diversity in the landscape, but we didn’t always do things like we do now. A lot of what we’ve learned we learned the hard way. Going through periodic drought and the hard times of the ’80s forced us to change.”
For Faulstich, diversity means growing grains as well as grass and cattle. Last year he and Roth planted 600 acres to corn, and they benefited from good yields. They also plant oats, wheat, sunflowers and alfalfa, and practice field fallowing and rotations that are timed for conservation priorities. On harvested fields they use cover crops to protect soil. The grazing regime on their pastures adheres to principles of sustainability.
“We’re not as diverse as we’d like to be,” Faulstich said. “But we’re getting better. We believe that diversity is a huge factor in protecting the land. We practice diversity not only within our crop mix but also within the overall enterprise mix. Managed diversity is better for soil and natural resources, and it’s a safer approach for our operation’s economics.”
On a neighbor’s land we see fieldstone piled along fence lines during the process of converting grasslands to cornfields. Near one large pile, a hydraulic stone breaker was splintering boulders into riprap to be hauled off to dams needing protection from water erosion. There’s an irony in that, as the soil on the converted prairie is considerably more likely to erode after the rocks are removed and conversion has occurred. One of Faulstich’s objectives is to prevent erosion and maintain healthy soils. He values insects, worms and microorganisms in the soil, and protecting soil vitality is a priority.
Fifteen years ago Faulstich was frustrated with crop loss caused by pheasants and deer thriving in the habitat he had created. Then he realized he could take advantage of his circumstance. Thus was born a pheasant hunting business that boosts Daybreak Ranch’s bottom line, and also provides enjoyable camaraderie with happy customers. This past fall, when the pheasant population dramatically declined elsewhere in South Dakota, Faulstich’s conservation-driven approach to land management protected pheasant numbers and provided his guests with the ample shooting opportunities they’ve come to expect.
More recently Faulstich and Roth added a deer hunting business to their portfolio.
“We’ve had as many as 1,000 deer wintering on our place,” Faulstich said. “We didn’t want to reduce habitat, and the hunting operation helps us manage the deer herd while reducing crop loss. That’s a win-win for us.”
The Farm Bill earns a mixed reaction from Faulstich: “I’m hopeful about the conservation side of the bill. But the commodity side needs help.” He points to crop insurance as harming diversity and prairie, and warns against the “all-in” approach to land use. “Crop insurance,” he emphasizes, “encourages farmers to produce a single crop that’s profitable in the short term. But it’s not sustainable if you’re planting your whole operation to just one or two crops. My advice to farmers and ranchers is to avoid becoming too reliant on any one crop or on government payments.”
Faulstich’s avocation as a land steward blends a need to earn a living with the goals of providing people with a meaningful product and preserving natural resources. His passion is prairie and cattle, so he views himself as a rancher, but he also calls himself a farmer because he grows grains and manages land for crop production.
Adam has returned us to the farmyard, and the truck rolls to a stop. “Sustainability is a buzzword now,” Faulstich says, resuming conversation. “But are we sincere about what it means? We’ve lost lots of diversity and lots of grassland. Are we caretaking our land, or are we mining the soil?”
What about the future of agriculture, I ask. What about the resiliency of the land and the stress it endures from industrial agriculture?
“I’m optimistic,” Faulstich replies. “I’m optimistic that agriculture will rediscover stewardship practices, and that it will embrace new stewardship ideas, too. We need to operate our farms and ranches with the mentality that we can compete in a world market without subsidies. We need to embrace sustainability and diversity, and we need to earn reasonable profits while protecting the environment. That’s what we’re doing here, on this place.”