American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
Walk to the back of Doug Palen's shop and you'll find a line of Gary Fisher mountain bikes. Palen is an active off-road rider who, neighbors would say, can be found huffing up and down 13 miles of trails cut into his farm, outside the north-central Kansas town of Glen Elder.
The trail lumbers through timber, creek bottoms and pastures, stands of native grass and along rows of crops. The trails are center stage in an annual ride Doug, and his wife, Tracey, host in August. Cruise the Blues, it is called, draws a few hundred bikers for an afternoon of competition.
Laying out bike trails requires an understanding of the terrain, knowing with certain precision where the trail has come from and where it is going.
It is in the same way that Palen approaches farming. He's interested in learning about where his soils came from–the characteristics of its biology–to better understand how to use them as his farm evolves.
Palen's farm features gently rolling loam and clay loams. Twenty-five miles from one end to the other, the farm is mostly cash rented.
These native ranges of Kansas were once defined by plant and microbial diversity. Key, Palen says, is learning to apply the living biological functions within that ecosystem to sustainably produce crops and crop covers.
"These soils will produce," Palen says, as we drive around his farm, talking about hedgeapple trees (a barrier tree known for its dense wood) and limestone fenceposts (quarried by settlers on land lacking trees).
Back in the early 1990s, the graduate of Fort Hayes State University was looking for a challenge. Honestly, he was probably looking for another career as he did not know that an opportunity to farm–an endeavor he had thought about since his younger years–would soon present itself.
His father offered him functional control of the grain side of the family's business. "It took an emotional shift," he says. "It was quite the challenge, but a challenge is what I wanted."
His father gave him a vote of confidence. "I've done my best to raise you," Doug's father told him. "Now you are on your own, to make your own way." True to his word, his father did not meddle in Doug's work.
Palen Family Farms has nearly doubled in size, and he farms it all no-till, a system 180 degrees opposite from his father's practices.
Single when he first took on the family farm, he traveled across several countries–China, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay–examining tillage systems. His farm has benefited from that curiosity and, to his credit, it is knowledge he shares with his peers.
But Palen's agronomic philosophy evolves around more than no-till farming. A visitor will find no soil of Palen's without cover, in season or out. It is a practice that, in some ways, mimics the prairie.
"I feel the soil needs something growing on it all the time," he says. "Biologically, it's the right thing to do."
His approach to his soils might better be defined as systems management–practices as focused on microbial activity, nutrient cycling, moisture management and soil quality, as with erosion control.
His is a system that overlays no-till with a diversified rotation–wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, corn–and a basket of cover crops–sunflowers, for instance. They are planted to increase residue levels, improve microbial and nutrient balances, use available water and improve water infiltration. Cover crops don't have to be money-makers in the near term. He believes they have longer value to his cropping productivity.
Palen's rotation can look like this. A winter wheat field going to corn the following season may be double-cropped with sunflowers or a cover crop, such as cowpeas, turnips and sunn hemp. The hemp, for example, produces a quick canopy, residue and it fixes nitrogen. The corn goes into that ground the following spring.
Sunflowers are an interesting find for Palen. It is a plant that sustains mycorrhizal bacteria, an organism that helps plants absorb water and nutrients. But their populations decline when nothing is growing. Palen speculates if the sunflowers maintain the mycorrhizae, the coming corn crop will benefit from them.
"We have the right idea," he says. "But I don't think we have it completely dialed in yet."
More recently, Palen is working through an idea that has brought cattle back onto his land. Their most basic contribution is income diversification. But Palen suspects they bring more to the table.
"I'm trying … how do I put this? I don't want to get into the cattle business to do it like everyone else does," Palen says. In his vision, the cattle complement the grain system.
Instead of harvesting grain and forage and bringing it to the cattle, Palen wonders what might be the result of bringing the cattle to the grain and forage. By using their grazing habits and manure, the cattle become a living piece of his farm's cropping system.
In other words, the cattle might graze a cover crop planted into wheat stubble; the cover crop absorbs excess moisture and traps nutrients; that field hosts sorghum the following year.
"Say I double-crop after wheat. If I get no [grain from that crop], then I have nothing. But if I put cattle out there, I have something," he explains.
Palen runs by the motto: forever a student. It informs one idea he tried. Into a wheat field he planted, one late June day, a half-dozen varieties of 95- to 100-day corn. He knew corn would produce good biomass. He wanted to know if corn is a viable double-crop for grain. "We had the moisture and the sunlight," he says. The field produced a 60-bushel average. "It was not a loss and it was interesting enough to try it again."
Forever a student. Forever curious. That's how Doug Palen rolls.