Like the sharp side of a sickle blade, the agriculture enthusiasts behind Spencer Farms consider themselves to be cutting edge.
With one of the first operations in Franklin County to institute no-tilling practices, Kevin Spencer prides himself on the effect the profitable conservation practice has had on his expansive property of nearly 7,300 acres.
“The first conservation practices we’re most proud of is that we’re no-tillers, the ultimate,” Spencer said of the farm that started with a 40-acre land purchase in 1972.
Well into the winter months, plants are dormant on Spencer Farms right now, waiting for the spring season to awaken and grow skyward. The farm, 2246 Ohio Terrace, Ottawa, is the recipient of one of the Franklin County Conservation District’s Bankers Awards. The award is given to farmers and ranchers in recognition of conservation practices. The Spencers are expected to be honored at the conservation district’s annual meeting noon Thursday at Celebration Hall, Franklin County fairgrounds.
A relatively new practice in the agricultural world, no-till is a method of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. Because the practice differs so dramatically from the common belief that soil must be tilled to minimize weeds, no-till has met with some resistance from farmers, Spencer said. But 20 years ago, the family thought they’d take a chance on it anyway. The key, he said, is sticking it out through the first two or three growing seasons until the practice takes hold.
“We don’t disturb the soil. We believe in keeping our soil covered at all times. We don’t suffer from wind erosion and soil erosion,” Spencer said of the 3,600 acres the family no-tills.
No-till is about building soil structure, Spencer said, and that is why it takes a few seasons for the no-till to take effect. Through the course of time, he explained, and with the continued presence of plant roots and materials, the soil layers become more structured. The no-till practice has been the farming operation’s saving grace during the recent prolonged drought period, Spencer said. While many producers were not able to harvest their crops, the Spencers moved forward.
“One of the misconceptions of no-till was that it produced less yields,” Spencer said. “But K-State has done studies that show it’s never a loser — most times it’s a gainer.”
The plant materials that are left in the field from no-tilling also help to prevent water run-off, which keeps the moisture on the crops where it’s needed, he said. It also protects plants from damage from wind and sun.
A former school teacher, Ron Spencer, the patriarch of the family, left that job and began farming full time. His son soon followed his lead. Brad and Aaron, Kevin and Linda Spencer’s sons, also help work the farm.
The Spencers grow more than just crops on their farm. They produce Angus cattle, are certified seed dealers, sell farming chemicals and do custom harvesting.
“We are basically one of the only farms that actually started out at zero,” Kevin Spencer, a former grocer, said. “We had virtually nothing. So everything we’ve accumulated has been off of our backs. We’ve worked hard, put long hours in and now the boys are here, and we just keep growing.”
Corn, soybeans, hay and wheat are grown on the farm south of Ottawa. The crop land also includes an extensive system of terraces. Also a form of soil conservation, terraces are built up areas on the land that help to control the flow of surface water, thereby preventing erosion. The Spencers use a method called tile terraces that includes installing more than 7,000 underground pipes that move the water from the end of the terrace to a location they designate — in this case a nearby creek.
One of the Spencers’ first soil conservation projects started nearly 20 years ago. On their property on Montana Road is what’s called a diversion dam that also helps to control the run-off of surface water. Since its installation, the Spencers have made four more such dams at various locations on their property.
The conservation practices, at times, can be highly expensive ventures, Spencer said, but they can equate to higher yields in the long run. It’s not only about producing high yields and making money, he said, it’s about leaving the land in the proper shape for future generations to live on and enjoy, he said.
“It’s something we’ve worked on all our lives, and our intention is to leave the ground in better shape than what we found it,” Spencer said. “Even though we own the land, we’re actually caretakers of the land because when we’re gone, we’re leaving it for somebody else.”