Kramer sees soil health as farm’s lifeline to profitability

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By Gillian Pomplun

Hearing that all is not well in farm country, unfortunately, is hardly news anymore. Grain and dairy farmers have lived through two intensely wet years, with tariffs shrinking export markets, and depressed milk prices causing record numbers of dairy farmers to exit the business.

Adam Kramer, owner of Black Sand Granary in Patch Grove, has a message of hope for farmers looking to shave costs and improve their farm business profitability. His message is to focus on building soil health, and to use data to determine which acres yield a profit.

Kramer is a certified crop advisor (CCA), and in 2019, took over the successful cover crop program launched by Crawford County Land Conservation Department and USDA-NRCS. In 2019, he was the Iowa Certified Crop Adviser of the Year. That recognition led to an even bigger award in 2020 when Kramer was recognized as the International Certified Crop Adviser of the Year.

“I am truly humbled that people are paying attention to the work that I do,” Kramer said. “This award is the biggest award I could receive with my certification, and I can say it is a real passion that is ingrained in me that has led me down this path.”

Kramer said the focus of his work is to expand the consciousness in the farming community of the fact that soil is alive, and not just dirt. Through this focus, Kramer believes farmers can improve their farm profitability and reduce their need for expensive inputs.

Crop certifier award

The International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) of the Year Award is designed to annually recognize a CCA who delivers exceptional customer service, is highly innovative, has shown they are a leader in their field, and has contributed substantially to the exchange of ideas and the transfer of agronomic knowledge within the agricultural industry. The ICCA of the Year Award celebrates a level of proficiency that belongs to an individual and not a company.

Certified crop advisers earn their ability to partner with farmers through countless hours of study and a focus on providing the best advice to growers. Most CCAs continue to develop their skills and knowledge throughout their careers for the betterment of their growers and the ag industry. The pursuit of continued growth and drive to go beyond the daily scope of work is why the ICCA Executive Committee and the American Society of Agronomy thought it was important, each year, to call attention to the best of the ‘boots on the ground.’

Kramer, who lives in Prairie du Chien, has been selected as the 2020 ICCA of the Year for his dedication and creativity in the space where land stewardship and ag production intersect. He has been, and is, an excellent representative of what the CCA program strives to represent in the ag industry. Through his leadership, he fosters greater trust between the farming community and their certified crop advisers. His unselfish commitment to grower profits, sustainability, and his collaborative mindset make him deserving of the award.

His mission has always been rooted in combining experience and knowledge with innovative ideas to solve problems for his growers. Cooperating with the farmer, learning alongside them, advising his neighbors, while getting his own hands dirty are all things that set him apart.

Kramer’s approach

Kramer was raised in southwest Iowa on a cow/calf farm, where the family ran beef cattle on pasture. He attended Iowa State University at Ames, where he studied agriculture. He became familiar with the Driftless Region when he moved to his grandfather’s farm near Monona.

In 2014, Adam, his wife, Kellie, and their family moved to Grant County, to farm 160 acres owned by his grandfather. In addition, they established Black Sand Granary to continue his work in soil testing and data management.

“Maximum production is central to my business, and our customers have won National Corn Grower’s Association awards in recent years,” Kramer noted. “Most farmers are doing a good job taking care of their land, but developments in technology mean it is possible for producers to refine their decision-making and ensure they are seeing the best return on investment in their farm operations.”

Kramer said, sometimes what that means is taking less productive acres out of production, and focusing on maximizing production on the better acres on the farm.

“Our on-farm research can show producers which acres are their most productive, what is needed to make those acres even more productive, and on which acres a producer could consider installation of conservation practices,” Kramer said. “What we try to do is encourage producers to put their resources into the better ground.”

Kramer explained that, especially in the current economic downturn in the farm economy, the best thing a producer can do to increase profitability is to collect as much information about their farm as possible. This, he said, will allow them to make the data-driven decisions that will maximize their returns.

“In my work, I help producers understand how to harness the power of the environment and work with it versus against it,” Kramer explained. “Producers who start to think in this way will go through a management shift, form a better plan, and start taking the long view.”

Kramer cited soil erosion and lack of water infiltration as the two biggest conservation issues facing farmers today. Cover crops, he said, are part of the solution to both of these problems.

“When you maintain a continuous cover on your land, and increase the above- and below-ground biomass in your fields, then you’re going to see increased microbiological activity and improved soil structure,” Kramer said. “This in turn, combined with no-till or reduced-till planting, will lead to reduced erosion and greater water infiltration.”

By holding more water in the soil, and preventing soil erosion, producers will not only improve their farm operation, but also play a critical role in protecting ground and surface water quality, and reducing the volume of runoff that can contribute to flooding problems.

Kramer pointed out that 41 percent of the nation’s land drains into the Mississippi River. This, according to Kramer, means that the Drifless Area is “ground zero” for helping to prevent runoff of nutrients that ultimately impact water quality all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The aerial cover crop service provided by Black Sand Granary includes field scouting and research, identifying the best seed mix to meet the farmer’s goals and ideal application date, and then follow up.

Cover crop program

Kramer’s no-nonsense, head-down approach has propelled the movement toward a focus on soil health in the Driftless Area forward spectacularly in recent years.

Flying out of the Boscobel airport, once out of the Viroqua airport, and out of the Lancaster airport in 2020, the program has seen steady growth in acres:

•2014: 1,430 acres in Crawford; 65 acres in Grant; and 278 acres in Vernon; for a total of 1,773 acres

•2015: 1,976 acres in Crawford; 60 acres in Grant; for a total of 2,036 acres

•2016: 3,223 acres in Crawford

•2017: 2,469 acres in Crawford; 393 acres in Vernon; for a total of 2,862 acres

•2018: 3,670 acres in Crawford; 213 acres in Vernon; for a total of 3,883 acres.

•2019: 9,860 total acres; Grant: 4,656 acres; Crawford: 4,996; Richland: 146; and Allamakee: 67. The cover crop seed was aerially planted onto 148 tracts of land owned by 36 producers (up from 26 in 2018).

Pending approvals for funding, Kramer is currently projecting the program will double in acres in 2020. A lot of those increased acres will come from Grant County, flying out of the Boscobel, Prairie du Chien and Lancaster airports. He believes acres planted in 2020 may be as high as 20,000 acres. He said he is looking to expand the program into other nearby counties, but would need to achieve a critical mass of acres to consider adding another airport into the program, for instance, Viroqua.

Funding for cover crops

Crawford County USDA-NRCs District Conservationist Karyl Fritsche said there is still time for producers to apply for Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funding for 2020 cover crop installation.

“The next EQIP deadline is June 5,” Fritsche said. “Producers should contact their local NRCS office to sign up by telephone as we are restricting in person visits—but all offices are open for business.”

The Tainter Creek Producer-Led Watershed Council, a watershed in southwest Vernon and northwest Crawford counties, also has some cover crop funding for 2020 provided by a grant from DATCP. The funding is available to producers in that watershed. To learn more, contact Berent Froiland at (608) 391-0570 or froilandb@gmail.com.

Farmers as leaders

Kramer stated his passion for his work is grounded in the idea that farmers can pursue both profitable farming operations, providing adequate nutrition for consumers, and clean water.

“At the intersection of farming and conservation, I have grown to embrace the idea that farmers have a leadership opportunity in agriculture to do what’s right,” Kramer said. “There’s nobody that touches the land more than farmers, and so the change needs to start with us.”

Kramer said his shift in thinking had started when he first ran his certified crop adviser business in southwest Iowa. At that time, he served on a certified crop adviser board, and became involved in the litigation of the Des Moines Water Works about agricultural pollution of the Racoon River Watershed.

“That experience really prompted me to start looking at what the issues with water quality and agriculture were,” Kramer explained. “Our board would receive quarterly briefings on the lawsuit, and it piqued my interest and really got me fired up.”

Kramer sees clear evidence of increasing interest in the farming community for his message of soil health as the critical pathway to farm profitability.

“When I was in San Antonio to receive my award, I gave a speech that was unfiltered and straight from the heart,” Kramer said. “The very next day, I was invited to speak to the National Corn Growers Association by a member that heard my speech the previous night.”

Kramer believes his message is resonating with a steadily increasing audience in the farming community. He is grateful for the recognition his efforts have received because it gives him more visibility and an expanded platform for getting his message out.

“Clean water and production of adequate nutrition are agriculture’s burdens to bear,” Kramer said. “No one knows the lengths farmers will go to to get the job done, and I believe we are up to the job.”

Gillian Pomplun is a reporter for the Crawford County Independent in Gays Mills, a sister publication of the Courier Press.

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