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MENTOR NETWORK SERVES AS VALUABLE REFERENCE FOR AG PRODUCERS

Jan 08, 2020

By Janelle Atyeo for South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service

NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE (NRCS), Huron, S.D., Jan.3, 2020 - When your doctor prescribes a new daily regimen or a major surgery to improve your health, it's common practice to turn to an expert and seek a second opinion. When setting out to improve the health of your crop, range and pastureland, there's a resource for finding advice from other producers who've made the same journey.

A directory of agriculture and local foods producers throughout the state has been assembled with South Dakota people who are ready and willing to talk with other farmers and ranchers as they navigate through the process of building soil health and using regenerative practices.

"Building Connections" is a 35-page directory that lists volunteer mentors by county, giving their contact information along with a synopsis of their soil health-building experience. Some have tried diverse crop rotations or full season cover crops. Others are experts in rotational grazing, multi-species livestock, or managing native grasses.  

Unique to South Dakota, there are more than 160 mentors in all, with at least one in every county with expertise ranging from large operations to average size acreages to small local foods producers and gardeners. The Natural Resources Conservation Service spans South Dakota and started organizing the group through the USDA's Earth Team network in 2013.

Doug Sieck is one of three producers under the Walworth County listing, ready to share his experience with cover crop rotations and grazing, no-till, soil biology and more. More experienced producers helped him out when he was first trying some unconventional management styles. "Being part of the mentor network is a way to give back," he said.

Sieck remembers when he was first planting some of his crop land back to grass and alfalfa. He made the mistake of putting hungry cows in the alfalfa, and he lost one cow and others got sick. The experience could very well have soured him on the practice and made him abandon his grazing plans altogether, but instead, he reached out to others who had been grazing alfalfa/grass combinations. They warned him against letting hungry cows loose on the mix and told them how the practice was a success for them. It gave him the confidence to keep going.

Now he’s counseled others – most recently about grazing in standing corn. It’s something he lauds as a great way to adapt to less-than-ideal conditions. When wind blows down a field of corn and makes it impossible to harvest, producers might fear it’s a total loss, but the crop can become fodder for grazing herds.

“When we get curve balls, it’s nice to have a reference from people who can help us adapt,” Sieck said.

He hopes the mentor network will give producers the reassurance they need to try new things.

“It's experiences shared farmer-to-farmer and rancher-to-rancher,” said Colette Kessler, public affairs officer for NRCS South Dakota. “The peer network is really the best place for a real-life example of how things really work. They’re living it on a daily basis.”

Kessler and her team got the idea for the "Building Connections" directory after working with producers across the state, helping them share their conservation success stories. They spoke highly of how their soil practices were working, and Kessler saw the value of making that information available to others interested in doing similar things. “The network is an important sounding board for how to adapt these principles to your operation,” she said. "Changes are not always easy or quick, such as transitioning fields from tillage to a no-till system, so finding good coaches certainly helps. Sometimes, conversations about smaller tweaks such as modifying equipment can be very timely," she commented.

The mentor network was built with the help of several organizations whose experts provide technical advice for resource management. Along with NRCS, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, the South Dakota No-Till Association, the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, the South Dakota State University Extension and South Dakota's Conservation Districts are involved. Producers interested in joining the mentor network can contact any of the partnering organizations.

The network is free. There is no charge to contact or get involved with the mentors in the directory. Anyone can receive the directory by sending an email to colette.kessler@usda.gov or call (605) 352-1200 to receive the publication in the mail. Directories are available in every county at local USDA Service Centers with the NRCS or conservation district.

“The farmers and ranchers are all volunteers who simply want to help their peers with questions,” Kessler said.

Soil health experts, agronomists and range specialist have a great understanding of soil health principles and the microbiology that makes healthy soil function like it should. But it's the producers with boots on the ground who have an intimate understanding of how it works in practice.

“They’ve made mistakes. They’ve learned through doing it rather just in theory,” said Bryan Jorgensen, a member of the mentor network who has long been incorporating no-till and cover crops on his family’s ranch near Ideal in southern South Dakota.

He doesn’t discount the expert advice and the researchers or university extension, NRCS and other groups are doing. It’s the partnerships between researchers and producers that give them the ammunition to help other people, he emphasized.

Jorgensen also doesn’t discount the value of making mistakes. They’re part of the learning process and serve as useful examples for others. Jorgensen encourages anyone with success stories in regenerative agriculture to become part of the mentor network.

“We feel it’s important to spread the good word about soil health. We’re passionate about soil health, and we want people to improve the soil,” he said.

As a statewide service, NRCS South Dakota has organized the network of mentors who are willing to talk other producers through adopting regenerative practices such as transitioning away from tillage, use of cover crops or rotational grazing. Producers can directly contact a mentor and their conversations are private.



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