Podcast Episode 65

Outsmarting Mother Nature with Drainage Recycling

With Guest:
  • Kellie Blair, Farmer

In this episode, Jamie sits down with Iowa farmer, Kellie Blair to talk about cover crops, the future of farming, and an exciting drainage recycling pilot program that she and her husband AJ have volunteered to be a part of.

Episode 65 | 23 min
Being able to time that water is going to be an important part of managing it... we can’t always count on mother nature.
— Kellie Blair

Guest Bio

Kellie Blair farms with her husband, AJ near Dayton, Iowa. Blair Farms LLC is a fourth-generation farm focusing on improvements and conservation. Kellie is a graduate of Iowa State University in Forestry and Agronomy. She and AJ are part of a pilot program for drainage recycling funded by the EPA, the Iowa Department of Land and Ag Stewardship and the Iowa Soybean Association.

Jamie Duininck (00:02):
This is The Water Table.

Speaker 2 (00:05):
A chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.

Speaker 3 (00:09):
A place for people to go find information and education.

Speaker 4 (00:13):
Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.

Speaker 5 (00:17):
How misunderstood what we do is.

Speaker 2 (00:22):
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck (00:30):
Welcome, everybody, to The Water Table podcast. Today I have a fun guest with me, Kellie Blair. Kellie is a farmer with her husband, AJ, in Dayton, Iowa, or near Dayton, Iowa. She’s got a great story for us just around their journey in agriculture and the different things that they do, not all just common commodity crops. They’re doing some different things with their commodity crops. And just wanted to visit with Kellie today and talk about some of the practices they’re doing on their farm and also some of the accolades that have come along with that. So Kellie, welcome to the podcast.

Kellie Blair (01:06):
Thanks. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jamie Duininck (01:08):
So Kellie, let’s start with, why don’t you tell our listeners where exactly is Dayton, Iowa?

Kellie Blair (01:13):
So, Dayton is about an hour and a half north of Des Moines. And if you know where Fort Dodge is, we’re about 25 to 30 miles south of Fort Dodge.

Jamie Duininck (01:21):
It’s kind of in the, let’s say… I call Fort Dodge West Central Iowa, pretty much.

Kellie Blair (01:27):
If I call it North Central, people get mad because they’re in North Central and I’m not. And if you call it West Central, they might not like it. So we’re kind of in the middle.

Jamie Duininck (01:36):
My days from traveling Iowa as a traveling tile salesman back in the day was… Dayton Farm Drainage was right in Dayton, Iowa. So I know where it is.

Kellie Blair (01:46):
It’s still around.

Jamie Duininck (01:48):
Yeah. Okay, good. So you and your husband met in college, both attended Iowa State University, correct?

Kellie Blair (01:54):
Yes. He was out of college and I was still attending, and it was a rainy spring night and we met at a local watering hole.

Jamie Duininck (02:02):
Good. So tell us a little bit about your journey, as I’m assuming Dayton, that area of farm for your husband, AJ, was home. Is that correct?

Kellie Blair (02:14):
Yep. We’re the fourth generation on the farm here.

Jamie Duininck (02:17):
On the farm. So you guys got married and ended up back in Dayton and taking over the family farm, the legacy there. And tell me just a little bit about the early years and how that went and how you’ve gotten to where you are today through that process.

Kellie Blair (02:40):
Yeah, it’s been a process, and I guess time flies when you’re having fun is what they say, right?

Jamie Duininck (02:46):
Right, right.

Kellie Blair (02:48):
When we first started farming, we were pretty much corn on corn, conventional tillage. We did have pigs, and it was a pretty simple operation. Today we’re very diversified. So we have corn and your soybeans, but we also do small grains and hay. We have pigs still for livestock, but we also have a cow calf operation as well as a feed lot. So we have quite a bit going on a lot more of the year anyway. And our focus throughout all of that is conservation, and continual improvement is kind of where we’re at right now anyway.

Jamie Duininck (03:23):
Sure, sure. And you guys, your farm was sponsored by the Iowa Land and Stewardship along with the EPA for a water retention project. Tell me about that and let’s talk about that for a little bit.

Kellie Blair (03:41):
Yeah. So Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship and EPA, along with the Iowa Soybean Association, they’re going to be the ones collecting the data with this project. But we’re a pilot project, I think one of three in Iowa. And the idea behind drainage recycling is just that you capture water that’s coming off of your farm, that’s drained off of your farm, store it in a pond, and you irrigate it back onto that land. The benefits should be yield, you should get an increase in yield, but then the water quality benefits that go along with that by slowing the water down, helping with flood mitigation, recycling nutrients and that type of thing is what we’re looking at to see if…

The project, obviously, it’s a really big investment for farmers. And so the goal is to see, is this worthwhile to do in the future? And so we’re really excited. This will be our first year. This coming year will be the first year that we’ll be able to get to use it. So cross our fingers, everything will go well this year. But our pond in particular, actually our tile water, we couldn’t dig it deep enough to actually gravity flow our tile water into it. So we are pumping from a tile main underneath the pond. We’re pumping it into the pond. It’s about 20 foot of water, three and a quarter acres or so. It should have enough water for three inches for about 130 acres. So it should be interesting to see. We’re excited to use it.

Jamie Duininck (05:21):
So is that 130 acres all tiled, then? Is that the amount of tiled area and then you’re irrigating over the same acres, then?

Kellie Blair (05:32):
Yep. Yep, we are.

Jamie Duininck (05:33):
When you say 20 feet of water, so is that 20 acre feet? Is that how that-

Kellie Blair (05:37):
That’s a good question.

Jamie Duininck (05:39):
Neither one of us are engineers so we’ll leave that one alone. But I think so. But I mean the point is, even in Dayton, Iowa area probably wasn’t as dry as further West Iowa this year. But it got pretty dry, right-

Kellie Blair (05:39):

Jamie Duininck (05:55):
… this summer?

Kellie Blair (05:57):

Jamie Duininck (05:57):
So I’m sure you would have loved a three inch rain any at any time. And it should be interesting to see how this goes.

Kellie Blair (06:06):
Yeah. And being able to time that water I think is going to be an important part of managing it to get that when we need it where we can’t always count on Mother Nature helping us out that way.

Jamie Duininck (06:22):
So how were you guys, your family, selected for this process? Was this something that you had heard about and you entered into saying, “Hey, we might be interested in this”? Or how did this all go?

Kellie Blair (06:36):
It was completely by happenstance. I was at a Iowa Soybean Research Conference, and a gentleman from IDALS came up to me and said, “Hey, we’re looking into doing this project. Would you be interested?” I had no clue where it might go or what it would look like, but I said, “Yes, put us down for it. We’ll figure it out.” And it’s just one of those opportunities that come along. And I think it was kind of scary to say yes, but it’s going to be really neat when it’s all said and done.

Jamie Duininck (07:10):
I suppose you may not even know being that this is a new process, but how often will that pond retain water? Will you pull it down all the way during the summer?

Kellie Blair (07:22):
That’s a good question. We’ll hopefully find that out. I know Iowa Soybean Association will be putting in soil moisture monitors and things, and so I’m really hoping we get some guidance on timing and things like that because that’s something in Iowa we don’t have a ton of that where we’re at right now.

Jamie Duininck (07:41):
Sure, sure. I’ve actually had the opportunity to see a couple of these projects, one in particular in Manitoba and kind of the same thing where they were growing potatoes and it was a sandier soil. And they could take about three inches of rain or water in substitution for rain each year. And it really changed the dynamics of that farm because of just the rain patterns and the sandier soil, they’re kind of guaranteed. They drained it, so they had their water figured out. If there was too much, they had their drainage in place. And there wasn’t enough, they had their pond and irrigation. So that’s usually one of those intangibles you cannot control, and they kind of had control of it. So I really look forward to hearing more about this from you and seeing some of the things that are going to be in some of the publications as time goes on about this. It’s a neat concept, and I wish you guys really well with that.

Kellie Blair (08:42):
Thank you. I hope it goes well because I think it has a lot of potential, especially with weather patterns the way they’ve been. You get pretty wet and then you get pretty dry. So if we can help downstream water quality, yields productivity, I think it’d be really neat to create a solution out of what’s going on.

Jamie Duininck (09:03):
Sure. Let’s talk about cover crops, another thing that you’re doing on your farm. And cover crops, I think if we’re having this conversation three or five years from now, it’s going to be a much more common topic amongst all farmers. But you guys are on the leading edge of this, and I’m personally really curious to hear your story on this and how they grow. I think being up here in Minnesota, our growing season is even a little shorter than Dayton, Iowa. But it’s coming, and how is it going to work? I want to learn more. So tell me about your experience.

Kellie Blair (09:40):
We’ve been doing cover crops for probably about 15 years we’ve been trialing it. And as with everything that we try on our farm, we always say start small to try to learn your way through it, and that’s exactly what we did. I think the first time we ever seeded cover crops was with our four-wheeler on… I don’t remember how many acres. It was supposed to be a trial with Soybean Association but I don’t think we ended up getting any data out of it. But right now where we’re at is we grow seed beans for Pioneer and we grow a lot of non-GMO soybeans. So weed control right now is a really big thing. So we’re attempting to use cover crops right now as a little bit of weed control in those non-GMO where we don’t have a lot of tools in our toolbox to control those weeds.

And so ahead of even any commercial soybeans that we do, we try to get cover crop in the ground in the fall ahead of it. So we’ve done all the different methods of cover crops. We’ve used airplane, we’ve used a Hagie highboy, and then right now a majority of it is we drill. And it’s all cereal rye, pretty much. We’ve gotten a lot of success with cereal rye. The mixes I think are good if we had time to manage it, maybe a little bit more to get it on at a more optimal time. But right now it’s kind of, we’ve got to focus on getting the cash crop out, and the cover crop is secondary to that. And so we try to get in as much as we can. Drilling it has been a really good deal. It either might grow in the fall depending on weather, but majority of the time there’s not a lot of fall growth. And it’s spring growth, a really pretty good spring growth a lot of years. And it’s really variable.

So even though we’ve done it for about 15 years, we’re still trying to learn our process and exactly how it works, but continual improvement and conservation were our goal. And so we know the benefit it has to soil, to water, and we know there’s a lot of programs available to us to utilize to try to help us along. And so we’re just committed to trying to make it work. Because, like you said, in the future, it’s an up-and-coming thing. You hear about it everywhere you go. Any article you see, you hear about cover crops. And so we’re pretty committed to making it work. And right now, ahead of corn, we’ve held off on that. We’ve done trials through Soybean Association ahead of corn and ahead of soybeans, and corn is a little… What did I hear in the last conference? Corn is a princess crop, and so it’s a little bit more finicky on keeping everything good for it to make sure the yield is good.

So we don’t have the time quite yet right now to try to manage it ahead of corn, to make sure we get it killed ahead of time, to make sure that all the issues that might come with killing it after we plant it. There’s a lot of issues that could come. So we know that we could potentially hurt yield ahead of corn and so we just have to take our time to get there. But ahead of soybeans, it works really well. You can do a lot ahead of soybeans. Soybeans will just grow.

Jamie Duininck (13:08):
Yeah, yeah. Have you been able to see the difference in soil health on your farm with cover crops?

Kellie Blair (13:17):
Yeah. I think, this is not research-based, this is what we see as farmers, for sure, but between no-till and cover crops, we see a good couple days every spring and fall that we’re able to get in the field, whereas full tillage neighbors might not. And I don’t know. I attribute it in my head to walking through a lawn versus walking through a mud driveway. If you walk through a lawn when it’s wet, you’re pretty well just fine, but if you walk through a muddy driveway when it’s wet, your boots are caked with mud and things like that.

So it really has mellowed out our soil. And we’re, again, learning our way through reduced tillage ahead of… We don’t do any tillage ahead of soybeans. Corn, we’re trying to figure that out. We’re really not wanting to do tillage if we don’t have to ahead of corn. But again, it’s a different process ahead of corn. But we see a lot of good things in our soils happening. And we’re doing research with Iowa Soybean Association to hopefully be able to actually quantify those things too.

Jamie Duininck (14:30):
Sure, sure. So tell me about, it’s interesting when you talk about getting in the field a little earlier than your neighbors that might have conventional tillage, but how much of your farm do you have adequate water management on and proper water management, would you say?

Kellie Blair (14:51):
We have our own tiling machine, backhoe and all that. So, that’s why we actually started small grains is so then during the summer we can get out and doing tiling instead of fall or spring where we have very little time to do it. And so we try to put in a little bit every year on our landowners and our own land. And so that’s first and foremost when we’re thinking about increasing yield. That’s where the focus is. If we get good drainage in there, we know that’s going to pay for itself.

Jamie Duininck (15:24):
Yeah. I’ve always been under the impression, and it makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, but around the cover crop situation is it’s the right thing to do, but if you don’t have your water management plan and your tiling done, it’s going to be really challenging for that ground to be ready to go in the spring.

Kellie Blair (15:45):
Yep, yeah. And I think there are some of those challenges. I mean, we have dark soils. But like you said, if it’s drained, it’s pretty easy to do a lot of things.

Jamie Duininck (15:58):
Sure, sure. Well, lots going on, and you guys, as you said, we try things and we try again. We experiment with this and it might not work, and then we do something different. I know you guys have cattle and you’re talking about non-GMO beans and cover crops and now this project, but you also have a couple of kids. You’re married with children, and you’re living, and all of the stuff that comes with that, just like other people. But you’re also farming and owning your own business. I’ve been spending some time with different people that are city dwellers lately and they are always saying, “If I could ever figure out a way to live on the farm, I would do that. If I could figure out a way to live rural and make a living in rural America, I’d do that.” So just tell me a little bit about what’s a day in the life like for Kellie and her family? I see one of them walking by there behind you. So, that’s part of the day in the life, right?

Kellie Blair (17:09):
I think he had first lunch at around noon, then got called back out and then came back in. So yeah, a day in the life is there is no day in the life because they’re all different. I think that’s one of the main ones on the farm. I grew up on a farm and I always tell people, “It’s a lot different being a farmer’s wife and a farmer versus being a farmer’s daughter. You really don’t know the stressors that happen.” My parents did a good job of making it look, I guess, easy, because it’s pretty hard in rural Iowa.

I guess the grass is always greener on the other side, because I look at some people who live in town and to be able to get to the stores easier. We have a local grocery store, but it’s pretty limited on what they have. And I try to support them, but as prices go higher, it gets harder and harder. And our school district, I think, is one of the biggest in geography in the entire state of Iowa, and there’s not a lot of students in the school. I think classes graduate with around 60 or 70. I might be wrong. But it’s rural.

And I think I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I really enjoy being on the farm and being able to have our own business and figure out where we want to go with our business and make our own decisions. It’s stressful, it’s risky, it’s scary, but it’s also pretty fulfilling to be able to say that we’re raising in this house that we live in… I think my husband’s grandfather was born in this office that I’m currently sitting in. We’re raising the fifth generation in the same house. And so I think there’s a lot of the history that goes behind it. But at the end of the day, I think most business owners know what we’re going through. It might be a different situation in what we do every day, but at the end of the day, it’s still a business, and our goal is to make it sustainable in whatever ways we can.

Jamie Duininck (19:27):
I don’t know why I just thought of this, but as I’m listening to you too, I think there’s a certain entrepreneurial spirit that you have to have in your DNA to be a business owner, whether that’s a farmer or to start something new. And I read a book not too long ago about a guy, I won’t get into all the details, but that was a very successful businessman. And somebody else was telling this story from their perspective. They were with them and they were on an airplane and it was snowing. They were leaving. Minneapolis is where they were leaving. And he was most excited because there was snow on the runway and there was no tracks in front of them to take off from the runway. And he related that back to just… That’s the spirit that this guy had and that you have to have is you got to be able to be willing to take that step out into the open frontier.

And when I listen to your story and what you’re doing, you’re doing a lot of that that I think is going to be beneficial to future generations of farmers, not just your family but of farmers with what we’re going to need to do if we want to be good stewards of what we have. And we’re going to create better water quality, we got to do some of this stuff. Better soil health, we got to have cover crops. And so I just applaud you and your family for being on the forefront of this stuff, and would love to stay in touch with you and get some updates on these projects as time goes on for The Water Table.

Kellie Blair (21:05):
Yeah, we’d love to do that. And I think, like you said, just being able to do new things. I think we’ve had a lot of support just from partnerships. And when we started some of those partnerships, we didn’t really think that much of them. We thought, “Well, this is a good opportunity so we’re going to take it.” But as we look back on our career so far, we think about, “Where would we be if we said no? Where would we be if we would’ve gone a different route?” And so we attribute a lot of success that we might have to learning from others. And I guess that’s why we are also committed to doing some of these projects and helping and doing our own research and letting people use that because it’s important to us. And so if we want to use it, we got to be a part of it and share it and tell our story and hopefully encourage people to do the same, to work on making it work, figuring it out how to make it work.

Jamie Duininck (22:08):
Yep. Yep, for sure. So thanks for being with us today on The Water Table and for telling your story and just what’s going on in your family farm and what’s happening in rural Iowa. And we’ll stay in touch. Appreciate it very much.

Kellie Blair (22:23):
That sounds great. Thanks for having me.

Jamie Duininck (22:29):
Thanks for joining us today on The Water Table. You can find us at watertable.ag. Find us on Facebook, you can find us on Twitter, and you can also find the podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.