Thursday, December 1, 2022

Deakin Family Farming Organically and Regeneratively

by Colter Brown

The following content is from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) “Conservation for the Future” series which features Montana landowners’ experiences working with the NRCS on various conservation projects. You can view the entire series at nrcs.usda.gov.

Good things come to those who wait . . . and work hard while doing so. Such is the case with Michael and Emily Deakin, a young family who began their organic farming journey on leased land in Utah. Throughout the five-year lease, the couple spent countless hours searching for farmland to purchase. While attending a Montana Organic Association conference, Michael met a woman looking to sell her farm. In the spring of 2018, with three months left on their lease, the Deakins hit pay dirt with an 1,800-acre farm in Pondera County, Montana. “Everyone was super helpful, willing to talk, share information and help us out,” states Michael. “All of the support we received help set us on the right path.”

Transitioning a conventional farm to organic isn’t easy nor does it happen overnight. “You have to grow everything for three years but sell it conventionally,” states Michael. “You’re not putting in high inputs to be able to get out high yields, and we were worried financially. This was going to be hard for us to get through.” During the first couple of years, the Deakins were fortunate to diversify into specialty markets for transitional, chemical-free, non-certified organic crops.

Emily thinks the experience is providing great teaching moments for their two sons, “It’s important for my boys to see, if you want something, even if you enjoy it, it’s going to be really hard and you have to work together, you have to ask for help and get community around you to help.”

Some of that help has come in the form of NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which offers a variety of conservation options for producers across their entire operation. “We sat down to discuss Michael’s goals and objectives, looked at practices and enhancements and he came back with a list of things he would like to try,” explains NRCS District Conservationist Stacy Denny Eneboe. “Our ultimate goal was to make sure we had a diversified cropping rotation, minimize tillage and be able to improve soil health long-term,” states Michael. “We think we can do that and be organic as well.”

“One of the enhancements he is implementing is pollinator-friendly crops in rotation; plants that bloom throughout the growing season for the pollinators and something he can harvest at the end of the growing season,” states NRCS’s Denny Eneboe. Through NRCS’s EQIP program, the Deakins are working to improve their fields by planting cover crops specifically for nitrogen fixation and to help break up soil compaction. “In fields where he is seeing less water infiltration,” continues NRCS’s Denny Eneboe, “he planted deep-rooted cover crops – sweet clover, lentils, peas; species that work well for that.”

Nodules on pea roots fix nitrogen, making atmospheric nitrogen available to plants. These deep-rooted plants will be plowed into the soil as a green manure crop.

NRCS’s EQIP program also helped the Deakins incorporate field borders around their cropland. “These 125-foot pollinator borders offer a buffer between non-organic or traditional farming and organic fields,” states NRCS Pheasants Forever Partner Biologist Erin Fairbank who works with the Deakins developing seed mixes and monitoring honeybee activity. A requirement for organic farms, the border strips include a diverse species of grasses and forbs. “They also provide a habitat and food source for pollinator insects, smaller songbirds, and are a great brood-rearing area for upland game birds,” continues NRCS’s Fairbank.


Deakin, Fairbank, and Denny Eneboe walk through a pollinator field border, counting pollinators.

Three years in and the Deakins are taking a novel approach to organic farming. “I think there’s a perception about farming organic that we’re going to be doing a ton of tillage then plant wheat and a ton of tillage and plant wheat again. And that’s not how it has to be or how it should be,” states Michael. “People haven’t seen how it can be done in a diversified rotation. Everybody has the same goals of trying to improve soil health, trying to improve diversity on the farm, people just have different ways of doing it. I think doing a more intensive cropping rotation, including different crops in the rotation, that does all of the same things that farmers not doing tillage are trying to do — improve our soil organic matter, keep living roots in the soil, improve the soil microbiology. It’s just a different way of doing it.”

Denney Eneboe, Fairbank, and Deakin inspect a field of clover buffered by a pollinator field border between the organic clover and a neighbor’s conventional field.
Denny Eneboe shows a mat of lentil aftermath, spring wheat stubble, and the current growing crop of clover. This rotation has allowed the field to not be tilled for three growing seasons. The clover will be plowed down as a green manure to benefit the next crop in the diverse rotation. The plant diversity, reduced disturbance, soil cover, and lack of chemical applications all have positive impacts on soil health.

“Soil health and fertility improvement are important for the Deakins as well as for all producers,” states NRCS’s Denny Eneboe. “Whether you’re an organic or conventional operation, we look at what we can use in that toolbox to make that system work for you to be productive.”

Has the journey been worth it? Emily speaks for the family, “I really enjoy being out here with my family, to reconnect with the earth, slow down a little bit and learn how to work hard and work through challenging things and also to rely on other people. Being in the organic community shows we care about our environment. Farming organically is our way to heal the earth and make the food and the world a better place for our kids to live in.”

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The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) emphasizes voluntary, science-based assistance to help landowners and managers improve their natural resources. NRCS conservationists work with landowners to identify problems and opportunities, develop alternatives, implement solutions, and monitor progress toward their goals. Learn more about the agency at www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov.

We will feature videos from the NRCS Conservation for the Future series which highlight several Montana landowners’ experiences in working with the agency. Each story brings something valuable to the table, and you can expect to hear about topics ranging from wetland restoration to weed control to organic farming – and much more!

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