Kellie Blair’s regenerative farming practice started as a way to diversify profits and optimize labor. The transition to conservation practices was borne of necessity.
Though Kellie and her husband both came from families that employed conservation farming practices, they started as a corn-on-corn, full tillage operation (with a 2,400 head pig barn). Early in their farming careers, they realized that diversifying crops and practices would expand their profit opportunities and allow them to build upon their success. Since then, Kellie and her husband have adopted regenerative farming practices, diversified their products and found new ways to connect to the land. We spoke with Kellie about her experience in regenerative agriculture:
“We're pretty young farmers and for land opportunities, it's hard for us to take out large loans, all at once. So diversifying brought us profit opportunities. Now we have corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa on an extended rotation, and we've added cattle into the operation.”
Employing conservation practices, diversifying their rotation and spreading financial risk over products (including cattle) allowed the family to become more financially resilient. Through these practices, they’ve been able to distribute farm labor more efficiently, reduce input costs and diversify their product portfolio. Today, Blair Farm has cover crops on 36% of their farm, and is 90% no-till.
Adding crops in addition to corn and soybeans and cover cropping helped distribute farm labor more evenly throughout the year. “[Diversifying] seems like more work throughout the year, but adding extended rotations reduces our concentrated labor for corn and soybeans in the fall and in the spring. So it may extend our workload, but it’s easier when you have fewer acres to ‘hurry up and finish.’”
Of course, Kellie Blair and her family didn’t stumble upon this profitable system. They tested many different practices in different areas of their farm, and stuck with the method that seemed most economically sustainable.
At one point, Kellie and her husband transitioned part of their farm to organic acreage, in an effort to increase profit opportunities. However, they found that organic practices, in the context of their farm, required too much labor to be effective.
“We had three fields that had officially transitioned to organic. At the time, prices were quite low and it was a profit opportunity for us. But when we got into it, we realized that it was pretty labor intensive. There are a lot of passes over the fields, which we needed to make time for. And in the meantime, we also had the non-organic side of our farm, and the family to care for, and everything else. So labor was a big issue.
'Ultimately, we found that we weren't getting what we had hoped in terms of yield, which then equated to profit. The labor and the profit weren’t quite adding up.”
Once the labor issue became clear, the Blair family pivoted away from organic farming. “We said to ourselves, ‘we have a big toolbox of things that we can use to mitigate risk when we're not organic, but when we're organic, we only have a limited amount to use.’ And both practices are decent ways of farming. Organic just didn't work for us.”
The ability to assess practices and profits and make long-term decisions based on financial resilience, is invaluable to growers.
Reducing Input Costs
Adjusting their practices led the Blair family to a system that requires less tillage and more concentrated crop growth. Kellie saw the benefits of this system in her soil structure.
“Thankfully, when we moved toward diversification we saw a lot of benefits in the soil. The structure, the infiltration...worms. We enjoy seeing worms in the ground when we dig.”
This fortified soil structure reduces input costs. Soil that holds more water holds more nutrients and allows for better access to the field. She compares it to walking in a muddy driveway compared to a fresh lawn after rainfall. “When I think about our fields compared to full tillage fields, I think about walking through a muddy driveway in the spring versus walking through a lawn. If you're going through the driveway, your boots get pretty bogged down with mud. Whereas with the grass in the lawn, it's pretty firm and your feet just get wet. That’s how I view it in the field, it really does help our soils become more resilient.”
Between crops and livestock, the Blair family has established a nearly self-sufficient cycle of production. This makes their product work harder, and brings even more stability to the farm. This system has come from a solution-oriented mindset; one in which each product is considered for its holistic value to the farm, rather than just its yield value after harvest.
Kellie explains how several aspects of the farm feed into one another:
“A few years ago we were buying our hay for use as feed or livestock bedding. Then there was a drought in southern Iowa , and we couldn’t get much hay. So we started thinking, ‘Okay, we feed our own corn… why wouldn't we feed our own hay?’ We tested it by converting some of our acres from row crops to alfalfa hay. And even with alfalfa, we're able to sell that during the year. So it offers cash flow during the summer months, when we might not have any corn to sell, and then we can use some for feed or hay.
‘The same goes for oats. The oats we grow become milk, but we can take that straw and use it for feed and bedding, too. And corn stalks become bedding, too… and whatever is used for bedding or feed eventually is put back into the fields as fertilizer.
‘We also take the manure from the barn, and apply that out [onto the fields.] And that's another great thing about the diversification of our crop acres: we do have some acres available in the summer to apply manure, rather than applying all of it in the fall or in the spring. We don’t have much time to do that in the fall and the spring, so this spreads out the work more evenly. It’s all a cycle in itself.”
And the cycle doesn’t stop here. The Blair family also produces beef for direct-to-consumer sales, which helped the family tremendously during the pandemic. Not only do these sales allow the Blair family to connect with their consumers, but they’re also reducing the risk of supply chain disruption and maintaining some control over the way they market and sell their products.
A Cycle of Resilience
Blair Farm, LLC has established a robust operating system, which provides them with financial resilience, soil resilience and resilience against market fluctuations. Monitoring practices carefully and assessing the outcomes of those practices has allowed the farm to increase its profit capacity and product diversity, and maintain strength for an unpredictable future.