Stockwell: Cover crops benefit farmers and wildlife

June 11, 2014: Jane Fyksen- Agri-view

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 11.43.42 AMThe farmer and the environmentalist. Sounds kind of like the title of a fairytale. Whether or not it has a happy ending depends on one’s perspective.

For Ryan Stockwell, there is nothing imaginary about the very real issues facing both agriculture and conservation-wildlife preservation advocates. He lives and works in both worlds, and would be the first to point out that the relationship need not be adversarial.

Formerly a northcentral Wisconsin farm kid who continues to lend a hand on the home farm at Dorchester, Stockwell is senior agriculture program manager for the National Wildlife Federation, this country’s largest private, nonprofit conservation education and advocacy organization, with more than four million members across the U.S. and 47 state affiliates including Wisconsin.

Stockwell, working from his home west of Medford, does outreach and policy analysis on agricultural legislation, most notably the Farm Bill, and other federal legislation impacting wildlife, natural resources and agriculture.

He also provides leadership on National Wildlife Federation efforts to increase producer adoption of cover crops, a relatively new thrust for the organization as well as agriculture as a whole.

Highly articulate, but with dirt under his fingernails and grease on his hands, Stockwell is equally comfortable shooting the breeze with a farm neighbor as he is discussing climate change with a Congressman or crop insurance rules with a Risk Management Agency technical expert.

A graduate of Medford High School, Stockwell spent summers and nights working on his Uncle Dennis Engel’s dairy farm.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UW-Green Bay, a master’s degree in history from Miami University in Ohio, and earned a doctorate degree from the University of Missouri at Columbia, specializing in agricultural history.

Intending to become a professor, he says he came to the realization that “academia was not for me.”

Stockwell has had a variety of career experiences prior to coming on board with the National Wildlife Federation in 2010. He worked as a legislative assistant in the Missouri House of Representatives on energy and ag policy and immediately became “hooked on addressing environmental problems through policy and education.”

He worked in Billings, Mont., with the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a nonprofit umbrella organization for nonprofit resource organizations in a number of western states. He dealt with mostly land-use issues, water quality and mining, working with landowners and other residents.

Stockwell moved closer to home in his next job as program director for clean energy and sustainable agriculture for a nonprofit organization called The Minnesota Project, which educates farmers, community leaders and policymakers about renewable energy and sustainable agriculture opportunities.

Other than travel, including to the nation’s capital, Stockwell works from Taylor County for the Reston, Virginia-headquartered National Wildlife Federation. He and his wife, Stephanie, who also graduated from Medford High School, have three sons, Owen, 7; Rylan, 3; and Graysen, 2.

Stephanie is a middle school science teacher in Medford.

Stockwell farms a small area of ground at his home, while helping his dad with his crops. Stockwell’s parents are Randy and Deanna Beaner Stockwell. Dairy farmers until the mid 1980s, they launched an auction business that they still own today, RJ Stockwell Land and Auction.

The farm meanwhile has transitioned from sheep to beef cows to cash grains today. Stockwell’s dad is past president of the Wisconsin Auctioneers Association and an inductee into the Wisconsin Auctioneers Hall of Fame. Stockwell also lends a hand in his parent’s auction enterprise, as ring man for their big spring and fall consignment sales.

As a farmer who also is working professionally for a prestigious and powerful environmental organization, Stockwell offers a unique perspective on multiple issues on which farming and wildlife and habitat protection interface. As noted, he does not see the two realms at odds, quite the contrary.

Cultural ideas from formative periods in American history, which is decidedly agrarian, have long-lasting political consequences. This country’s farm background still influences societal thinking.

“Agriculture is such a significant part of my life, and so many people’s lives,” said Stockwell. “It has an impact on how we see the world and the U.S. will continue to see the significance of that impact moving forward.”

Stockwell, 34, studied the period of the 1940s to 1960s in agriculture for his doctorate degree. He says that the U.S. experienced the largest internal migration from rural to urban-suburban in the decade of the 1950s. The percentage of the U.S. population on farms went from 34 to 10 percent during those 10 years.

Even though farmers comprise just 2 percent of the population today, he maintains that “agriculture is a key part of our past that still sticks with people.”

The youngest generations might not be familiar with farming, but farming is “still a valued part of our history, that is still fresh in this nation’s collective memory.”

“They don’t know agriculture, but they know it’s something they value and revere,” he says of the non-farm public viewing farmers in quite a positive light. “Farmers are given some space and opportunity to have a say more than any other 2 percent chunk of population.”

Obviously, that is good news for agriculture in the political arena and from a public relations perspective with the nonfarm public, too.

As noted, the National Wildlife Federation is promoting more cover crops on farms as a way to safeguard wildlife and improve water quality. Stockwell has been coupling no-till with cover crops on the ground he farms.

For instance, after soybeans, he has planted winter wheat, by Oct. 1 in an ideal world, when harvesting the winter wheat in early August and putting in a cover crop by mid-August. What that would be depends on the subsequent grain crop. If that is corn, the options include a mix of Austrian winter pea, oats and radish or maybe vetch and oats.

This past year he had winter wheat, and then planted a cover crop of radish, drilled at 9 pounds of seed to the acre, before the soybeans. Radish frost kills and decomposes rather quickly, leaving carrot-size holes. It holds nutrients in place and aerates the soil. Because it frost-kills, planting radish is a good place for cover crop beginners to start, as it removes one step of management.

Stockwell, who admits that he is still trying to figure things out when it comes to both no-till and cover crops, noticed that the radish tap root did some natural tillage by breaking up the plow pan. He has seen his drainage improve in just 3 years.

He also has seen the earthworm population improve to 20 some in a shovel-full. He notes that the radish canopied in a month’s time and out-competed winter annual weeds, other than volunteer wheat.

“It was amazing. It made my weed control really easy,” he remarks, adding that cover crops also are now a covered practice in EQIP, and they can be part of the equation in the Conservation Stewardship program (CSP), too.

One no-till myth Stockwell is helping to lay to rest is that no-till ground is colder and wetter, delaying planting. He has been recording soil temperatures and has found that regardless of weather, time of day or month, his no-till-cover cropped soil is a degree warmer than his neighbor’s conventionally tilled ground, even after the neighbor worked it three times. Better drainage is reason, he states of improving soil structure, hand in hand with no-till.

Stockwell uses a new Solvita soil health test. While the traditional soil test tabulates mineralized nutrients, this new test goes a step farther, measuring microbial activity in the soil, organic matter, carbon content and even the type of carbon.

“It tells you what nutrients are locked away in those elements and will become available to the growing crop.” Stockwell found he has a lot more phosphorous and potassium available than in mineralized forms; the mineralized forms equal about half of what is actually available. Thus he cut fertilizer use in half. This new test also can be used on pastures. He used the test via Woods End laboratory in Maine.

Looking at the new Farm Bill, Stockwell says the National Wildlife Federation worked on getting conservation compliance hooked to crop insurance and a sod saver provision put in place. The crop insurance subsidy, typically 62 percent, will be reduced to 12 percent on newly broken ground in six key prairie-pothole.

The reasoning is if ground is not broken by now, it’s high-risk ground and that risk should not be footed by taxpayer dollars through crop insurance. Further, on highly erodible land, all farmers need a conservation plan to collect on crop insurance.

When he is not working on ag and environmental policies, or on the tractor seat, Stockwell serves on the state technical committee for NRCS. He also is on the administrative council for the North Central Region of SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education initiative).

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Natalie EndresStockwell: Cover crops benefit farmers and wildlife