Eckmann family operation takes the all-natural approach
November 6, 2014
To join with the United Nations in celebrating the International Year of Family Farming, South Dakota Farmers Union will highlight a South Dakota farm or ranch family each month. This month South Dakota Farmers Union features the Eckmann family who farms near Cavour, S.D.
Like many South Dakota farm families, the Eckmanns raise corn, soybeans and cattle. And, like many of their peers, brothers Rick and Scot own separate farming operations but share labor and equipment. What makes this family's farm story unique is the fact that while Scot manages his farm conventionally, Rick's operation is all-natural.
While Rick applies commercial fertilizer and herbicides to his fields, he also applies many natural, soil building products and raises GMO-free crops. He finishes all his own cattle, feeding them the GMO-free grains and forages he raises, and he maintains a drug-free/hormone-free herd.
Some may think this difference in management styles would impact the brothers' relationship or alter their ability to work together, but it doesn't.
"We talk about what we each do on our own farms, but it's not an issue. Even though our farming practices are different, we face many of the same challenges – looking for ways to make it in a year like this when input costs are high and commodity prices are down," Scot explains.
"We've worked together for more than 35 years. I don't know what we'd do without each other's help. We are both valuable and play an integral role to each other's farming operations," Rick says.
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Their dad, Marvin, 82, also helps out the fourth-generation farmers, as does Rick's son, Colton, 26, who also works full-time off the farm as a diesel mechanic for James River Equipment in Huron.
Some of Marvin Eckmann's earliest farm memories include his dad, Fred, cultivating with a team of horses.
"The day he bought the F12 Farmall, he thought he'd died and went to Heaven. It was a great thing in those days to switch from horses to a tractor," says the 82-year-old, third generation Cavour farmer.
Today, Marvin understands the joy his father felt as he enjoys working with the new technology his sons, Scot and Rick, utilize in their farming operations. Although he and his wife, Rose, retired from farming some years back, Marvin spends most days on one or the other of his sons' farms helping out. "Agriculture is about being neighborly. We help each other out and we still help our neighbors when we can. I remember when I was a kid; all the farm families helped each other out and worked together. That doesn't exist as much as it used to and I think that's too bad," Marvin says.
Sharing labor and equipment is integral to both of his sons' farming operations. "Nowadays with equipment costs the way they are, I would not be able to justify purchasing equipment because I don't farm enough land," Rick explains. "And, two guys can get more work done more efficiently than one."
Although he and Scot share equipment and labor, they don't share the same farming philosophy. While Scot farms conventionally, Rick runs an all-natural operation. "Because I don't farm a lot of ground, I need to do something to add value to what I do farm," Rick says.
Rick raises GMO-free corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, as well as grass hay and oats. He markets most of his crops through his all-natural, antibiotic- and hormone-free commercial beef herd. "When I hear the term "value-added" I often think, 'it can't get more value-added than raising the feed that is fed to the cattle that I calve out and finish,'" Rick says.
Rick began farming full-time in 1978 when he purchased his cousin's farm. Almost from the start, he has raised an all-natural beef herd. Rick will use antibiotics to treat his cattle if they are sick, but if he does this, they are not marketed as all-natural. On average, he earns about $100 more per head than conventionally raised cattle. If he has extra grain on hand, he also receives a premium when he sells it to GMO-free markets in Europe.
The premiums do help his overall bottom line; however, Rick is quick to point out that premiums are not entirely responsible for his more natural approach to farming. "I feel that farming this way is better for the soil's health and my cattle's health and in the end, the consumers' health," Rick says.
His focus on soil health introduced him to Verity Farms, an Oldham-based company working in 13 states. Verity Farms specializes in improving soil health through biology feeders and plant and soil-friendly nutrients. Rick has been purchasing soil-building products from the company since 2000. The natural products are designed to build up soil microbial activity, reduce compaction and increase water infiltration.
"We work to enhance the life of the soil. Soil is full of microorganisms which need to be fed," Rick says. "The way I look at it, the soil isn't just dirt. It's a living, growing thing. So, by adding nutrients to the soil to enhance the life of the soil and using less herbicide, it will be able to yield more."
With the help of these products, Rick says he has been able to reduce the application of commercial fertilizer.
He adds that as his soil's health increases, weed populations decrease. "Instead of always turning to a chemical herbicide, we focus on our soil's health. Many weeds are indicators of nutrient deficiencies," Rick explains.
His son, Colton, shares an example. "If we see dandelions, that means the soil is short on calcium. Once we add calcium, or whatever the missing nutrient is, we see the weed pressure decrease."
If they don't clear out of the field, Rick is not opposed to utilizing herbicides or cultivation. In fact, last year he purchased a cultivator for just that purpose. "Chemical costs are getting scary. At least when I buy iron, at the end of the year, I have the iron to use next year, whereas the chemical is gone," Rick says.
However persistent the weeds may get, it won't convince Rick or his son, Colton, who works on the farm when he's not at his full-time job as a diesel mechanic for James River Equipment in Huron, to incorporate GMO crops into their farming operation.
"Look around at all the glyphosate-resistant weeds; GMO seeds aren't working," Colton says. "Someday I hope to take over my dad's operation and I will absolutely keep things non-GMO and continue to raise drug- and hormone-free cattle. We know where everything comes from and we know where each calf was born and that it was fed all-natural crops."
Although taking over the farm is a ways down the road, Colton says he and his new wife, Tiffany, live in a house on the farm rent-free in exchange for him helping his dad and uncle. He says he wouldn't have it any other way. "The farm is a good family environment. I like my job in town, but I don't want to see my family's farm sold to a bigger farm. I want to keep it in the family and raise my family here."
A generation earlier, his thoughts were echoed by his dad and uncle. Along with Colton, Rick and his wife, Peggy, also have a grown daughter, Beth, who also lives on the family farm with her husband, Brandon Neitzert. Scot has four daughters: Jenna, Lacey, Kahlie and Lexi.
Looking to the future, Rick sees the natural farming approach as a more sustainable practice. "I think too many farmers are farming for today and not looking to the future. We need to all take care of what we have – and that begins with the soil," he says.
The only challenge Rick's approach creates for Scot is the fact that equipment needs to be thoroughly cleaned before it's transported from one farm to the other. "We clean the combine and the spraying equipment. We don't want GMO seed to contaminate his fields, and we don't dare spray non-GMO crops with glyphosate," Scot says. "But that's really not too big of a deal. I grew up farming with my dad and brother and the three of us continue to work together today. It's an opportunity not every farmer gets."