Russell Hedrick, a first-generation farmer based out of Hickory, North Carolina, started his career in agriculture with an unexpected concern: Can I save my soil?
It was the winter of 2012. Russell had drained his savings, earned working with two fire departments, to lease thirty acres of farmland down the road from where he grew up. Soil samples pulled from the area – long after the paperwork was finalized – showed significant degradation, topsoil loss, and weed pressure.
Russell had been ready to help things grow. But he first needed to bring his soil back to life. He needed a blueprint. A plan. Who would give it to him, though, was another matter entirely.
Russell went to the Soil and Water Conservation District building, half an hour south of Hickory, to ask around. Would farming with different equipment help his soil? Could specific farming practices remedy the problem? As Russell walked down a hallway, unsure with whom to speak, a man stepped out in front of him, extending a hand. Lee Holcomb, the district conservationist, said, “Do you have fifteen minutes?” Russell had all day.
In his office, Lee pulled up “Under Cover Farmers,” a thirty-minute-long feature on three farmers in Stanly County, North Carolina who started integrating multi-species cover crops – among other regenerative growing practices – to produce large economic returns in short periods of time. The technique of cover cropping met four of the five “principles” for healthy soil, the video’s narrator described: limiting disturbance, covering the soil, increasing diversity, integrating livestock, and keeping live roots in the ground.
Watching farmers from his own state bring on five-, seven-, and even ten-way cover crop blends for what seemed like immediate success convinced Russell the same could be done on his thirty acres. He left the Conservation District building confident, ordered his first set of cover crops, and planted that fall.
“The first year was a difficult to manage,” Russell remembered. “The blend we chose didn’t work as well as we hoped, and we planted way too many seeds.” The challenges didn’t deter Russell; he kept the confidence, modified his approach. “We went into the mindset of test strips after that, which was the first step to our farm becoming research-oriented.”
Today, Russell works with more than four different universities and two private conservation entities to bring as much perspective as possible to his farm. There are novel and powerful technologies across his acres, like soil moisture probes, which can measure temperature at four inch increments down four feet into the ground. Russell takes tissue samples from his plants and nitrate samples from his soil. His entire operation has grown to nearly 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and cover crop blends.
There were regenerative farmers before us. There’s no reason our generation can’t do a better job with the technologies available to us now than they did.
An array of regenerative specialists and farmers have circled through Russell’s life, bringing further insights into the promotion of healthy soil.
Ray Archuleta, an agronomist who worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, taught Russell how rotational grazing animals could dramatically benefit soil organic matter; cattle, hogs, and sheep are now an integral part of Russell’s farm.
Gabe Brown, one of, if not the most well-known U.S. regenerative grower today, spent an hour on the phone with Russell walking through different crop rotations and management choices, even though, when he called, “Gabe didn’t know me from anybody,” Russell said.
Russell has garnered his own regenerative reputation. He received the North Carolina Innovative Young Farmer of the Year award in 2014. Now, for almost half of the days in a year, Russell travels the world to speak on applying the principles of soil health to “any land the sun shines on.” Russell has even opened his own distillery that produces bourbon from regeneratively-grown corn.
I want to continue farming and educating others in the industry, while marketing directly to consumers. Focusing on the distillery is part of what we believe will take us over the top.
Healthy soil has obvious tells: a rich dark brown color, a fudge-like consistency. But it’s not a comprehensive story. For that, Russell needed more elaborate soil sampling. And that’s how Russell – first a firefighter, then a farmer – found himself caring about carbon. “As we have measured increases in soil carbon levels,” Russell said,” we have also seen beneficial insects come in, weed pressure go down, and water retention go up. Farmers can not only bring more health to their farm, but benefit the planet in the process.”
“We need more Hedrick families,” said Dr. Rhett Herman, professor of physics at Radford University. Herman’s family used to own and manage a farm that Russell has since bought. “As he has brought in practices that have helped him save fuel, reduce emissions, and draw down carbon dioxide, Russell also made himself more money in the process while increasing production. These kinds of farming practices are a no-brainer for agriculture and the climate, as they bring carbon back down where it should be.” Dr. Herman has traveled to Utqiagvik, Alaska, ten times since 2006 to study changes in the ice sheets as a result of climate change. He is going for his eleventh trip at the end of February.
Russell had “faded in” to Dr. Herman’s family farm over time, first mowing the grass twice a year, then baling up the hay. Always the active participant, Russell started taking on more responsibility with the land – which had, when Dr. Herman was younger, been home to about a dozen black angus cows. When the creek showed signs of erosion, for example, Russell got in to dam it up. “It was clear Russ cared about the land itself, and was able to do right by it,” Dr. Herman said. “When it came time to sell off the farm for good, Dr. Herman felt no hesitation.
“It sounds like he’s now running a profitable lab,” he said.
We’ve already seen a huge amount of carbon go into the ground Rhett’s family used to own. And the land has started acting like it should. I believe this could be the next push for the profitability of agriculture.
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