Bock Family Farm - Minot, North Dakota
Brandon and Jessie Bock, together with their children, Grace, age 15, and Lyle, age 14, own and operate Bock Farms, about 20 miles north of Minot, North Dakota.
Jessie is a stay-at-home mom, having raised both of their children at home. Brandon says she is his “right-hand woman,” helping on the farm, keeping the books, running after parts, operating grain carts, among other important tasks.
Brandon isn’t sure yet if the next generation will be stepping up to take over Bock Farms when the time comes. At present, he doesn’t think that Grace shows the natural desire to be as involved in the farm as his son. “Lyle really enjoys it,” Brandon says, “and almost trips over himself to help.” But Brandon admits, one never knows what the future might bring, and people change over the years. There was a time in his own life, right out of high school, when Brandon didn’t think he wanted to farm but it didn’t take long, being away from the farm to realize that he didn’t want to not be a farmer. For Brandon, getting to the city helped him learn what he wanted and missed.
Brandon, Jessie, Grace and Lyle
He spent one semester at North Dakota State University, majoring in civil engineering and that one semester was enough. He didn’t like the big classroom atmosphere, with 400-plus students in many classes, nor did he care for big city life, so he transferred to North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and completed their diesel technology program. He uses that training regularly on the farm for maintenance and repairs of their own equipment, enjoying the significant cost savings.
Brandon has wondered, at times, if he should have gone to school somewhere to get training in an agriculture-related field, but he recognizes now, given what he knows now about agriculture, and regenerative agriculture in particular, that choosing an agriculture-related major in college likely would not have done him much good. Most agriculture programs, particularly at Land Grant Universities, don’t teach what he is currently practicing.
Brandon has been on the farm for as long as he can remember, starting his own operation in 2003 when he rented 160 acres from a neighbor. He did custom work back in those days, custom planting and harvesting using equipment he rented from his dad. He bought his own combine and has since expanded his operation throughout the years to the point where they are now farming 4,800 acres. Like many row crop farmers, they own only a small percentage of the land they farm (220 acres) and lease the remainder.
The lease arrangements vary by piece of property with most terms ranging from one to three years. One landlord gave him a 10-year lease because of the shared vision for healing the soil. Another landowner was willing to give Brandon a 25-year lease because of the value the landlord saw in Brandon’s regenerative farming philosophy. This is one of the major benefits associated with regenerative farming: Landowners see the positive ecological benefits and the land value benefits and offer longer lease terms. As a row-crop farmer used to year-to-year leases, this is a huge shift from the norm because longer-term leases allow regenerative farmers to make significant investments into changes that benefit the soil, beneficial insects and pollinators, and bird life, as well as other wildlife species. It also benefits the farmer as they can make far better soil health-management decisions and not worry every year if their lease will be renewed. When row-crop farmers are worried about annual lease renewals and have to compete with many other farmers in the area, it creates additional stress and causes farmers to over bid on land just to get those acres.
Brandon is becoming increasingly selective about the land he leases and carefully selects his landlords and does not take on more land just because he can. He wants the landowners to be on the same page with him regarding regenerative farming principles and practices and wants to heal the landowners’ land. Many row crop farmers are in a pure-competition mode, constantly bidding and re-bidding on acres. If they lose a lease, they just move onto the next piece of ground. With this year-to-year way of doing things, farmers have little incentive to focus on soil health and building soil organic matter, carbon ecosystem diversity, and soil function. They figure, why waste that effort on land they may not have next year.
Brandon has been farming some of his leased land for 15 years or more and thanks to his relationship with his landlords, he feels confident that, even with shorter term leases, he is not at risk of losing his lease to the next prospective tenant. He’s comfortable with farming regeneratively, implementing long term practices that restore and promote soil health because his landlords have been loyal to him over the years but he realizes the risk of losing leases with time. Landlords pass away, the land may get sold, etc., so in the face of those possibilities, he chooses to farm regeneratively, even if he risks losing leases. According to Brandon, he would rather not put himself in a situation where he farms in two different ways, with two different mindsets. This is core to regenerative farming because it is first and foremost a transformation of the mind. We must change the way we think about things before we can successfully implement the principles of regenerative agriculture. One quote from Steven Covey that Brandon remembers from the Soil Health Academy is crucial here: “To make small changes, we change the way we do things, but to make big changes, we have to change the way we see things.”
Brandon’s farm is next to his parents’ farm so they share the same farmyard, and their houses are only 300 yards apart. Their farm operations are separate and distinct, including the machinery. Brandon and his parents recognize their differing long-term goals and farming regeneratively doesn’t align with his parents’ long-term plans, especially as they approach retirement. They each pursue their own farming strategies with respect for each other, which is truly a unique situation among farm families. Typically, the adult children would farm the way their parent’s farmed and share common equipment. This took a conscious effort on Brandon and Jessie’s part to not just farm differently than Brandon’s parents, but to also recognize and appreciate the human dynamics of the extended family. Rather than work contentiously with his parents, Brandon has chosen to work with them as much as possible and to respect their decisions while they, in turn, respect the decisions of Brandon and Jessie.
Bock Farms has two employees, including George Bloms, a neighbor and part-year employee who has been working for them for 15 years. George does most of their seeding and quite a bit of grain hauling. The other employee, Curtis Sauer, is part-time and short-term and is working for Bock Farms until he starts college.
All land at Bock Farms is tillable and currently, all farming enterprises are cropping enterprises. Before starting down the regenerative path, they had a low diversity crop rotation, raising three crops: yellow peas, spring wheat and soybeans. Since transitioning to regenerative agriculture in the fall/winter of 2018 and into the spring of 2019, they've introduced significantly more crop diversity into the mix. They now grow cereal rye, winter wheat, spring wheat, barley, field peas, flax, sunflowers, and corn. In a very short period of time, Brandon and Jessie went from just three crop types and three revenue-generating streams to eight crop types and revenue streams.
North Dakota Prairie Pothole Country
Bock Farms is in the prairie pothole area of North Dakota with land that is gently rolling with contained low areas that will occasionally hold water if the surrounding higher land can't infiltrate the water. His regenerative efforts have resulted in his soil having significantly higher water-infiltration capacity, creating less ponding and pooling of water, less runoff and better soil function. His higher ground now produces better crop yields due to the capacity to infiltrate and retain more water, and in this region, with about 17 inches of annual precipitation, being able to infiltrate and retain water is a significant benefit.
Brandon has a goal of keeping equipment inventory to a minimum. Equipment is a huge cost for row crop farmers, not just because of purchase costs, but repair and maintenance, insurance, fuel, labor, taxes and depreciation. To achieve this goal, he tries to harvest all crops with a single combine and seeds between 200-800 acres of each crop type. To effectively accomplish this, the timing of field operations like seeding, scouting, spraying and harvesting is key. Brandon feels things go more smoothly when he can coordinate field operations as evenly as possible. Of course, weather conditions influence planting decisions like in 2022, when soil temperatures stayed cold for longer than normal. This was coupled with excess moisture, so Brandon had to improvise by eliminating his longer growing, warm season crops by cutting corn and sunflowers from his rotation for that year. Instead, he concentrated on the winter wheat already growing, and seeded barley, spring wheat and flax.
The ability to adapt to the ever-changing conditions that farmers face is an important aspect of regenerative farming. Most row-crop farmers will stick with their originally planned crop rotations and try to plant the warm season crops, regardless of conditions. This likely would have resulted in a crop failure and the farmers collecting crop insurance, but Brandon “changed the way he saw things,” and made adjustments that fit the conditions, which allowed him to grow successful crops without facing a crop failure and having to rely on crop insurance payments to bail him out. This is important on several levels: 1) He made decisions based on keen observations and current conditions; 2) he planted crops that fit the conditions instead of forcing a crop that was destined for failure or re-planting; 3) he produced profitable crops that he could harvest and market, rather than waste valuable acres on crops that would not have worked in that year; 4) he did not have to use taxpayer-subsidized dollars on crop insurance payments; and 5) he was able to continue his soil building and carbon sequestration process by pivoting and planting viable crops for the conditions. Had he stuck to the original plan, Brandon would have had a crop failure and a lost year in soil building and carbon sequestration.
Most farmers plan one season, one year at a time. They may change their cropping plan some, but when they do, it’s generally in an effort to generate more short-term returns, with little consideration for the longer-term benefits of soil health parameters and the surrounding ecosystem. Brandon and Jessie have a different way of thinking, emphasizing soil health first and foremost and short-term profitability second, knowing that improvements in soil health will result in improvements in net profitability. Brandon notes that it's remarkable how they've been financially rewarded for their regenerative efforts, even in the short term. Brandon says “It's like the good Lord is telling us, ‘Hey, thank you, I appreciate it. You're listening.’”
Brandon currently has no livestock enterprises and no other ag-oriented enterprises but does want to incorporate direct marketing sales strategies in the future, even though he believes direct marketing grain crops is a bit more challenging than marketing animal proteins like beef. Instead of direct sales to consumers, Brandon wants to target business-to-business sales to bakeries or smaller food companies that recognize the value of regenerative production practices.
THE TRANSITION TO REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
While a transition from conventional to regenerative production for many producers is financially motivated, that was not the case for Bock Farms. Instead, the motivation centered on the problems they observed with their soil over the years. Brandon was no-till farmer from the time he started farming but from 2003 to 2018 (which constituted the first 15 years of his career), he operated as typical high-input farmer, using more fertilizer, fungicide and insecticide—continually buying more inputs from the agronomy centers, and attempting to push yields higher and higher. The thought process was very similar to the rest of the farming world: Higher yields equal higher profits.
Brandon realized that he was basically attempting to “buy his way into a profit” through his push for higher yields. As he was doing that, he observed his soil steadily degrading. Saline areas (areas where the soil is slowly increasing in salination) on the farm were expanding. Water infiltration rates were decreasing alarmingly. In the fall of 2017, it was very dry with cracks forming in the ground so deep that Brandon says “You could have lost a wrench in them.” Yet, later that fall, after a two-inch rainfall, water ponded on the surface of the soil.
As Brandon looked around after that rain, he wondered, “How is this possible? We have these huge cracks in the ground, and we’re dry as can be, but we cannot soak up a two-inch rain.” As much as he was paying attention to his soil and crop conditions, he had to admit, he didn't know what was going on. In retrospect, Brandon realized that his agronomists weren’t going to tell him because they wanted to keep selling their products. “Maybe they didn’t even realize what was really happening,” he said. “After all, most are trained to look almost exclusively at soil chemistry.”
Brandon’s “light-bulb moment” occurred one night while he was on his computer. He was watching something farm-equipment related on YouTube when he stumbled across a video of a farmer planting corn into six-foot tall cereal rye. He was skeptical but intrigued, then watched another video and then another, and another.
As he watched more videos about regenerative farming, he happened onto one of Gabe Brown's videos and all of what he had been observing on his farm started to make sense. Why were his soils not functioning, and, in fact, getting worse? Why were his productivity issues expanding to more acres? Why couldn’t they address plant fungal disease issues? Why were the pest-insect problems getting worse? Brandon began to see connections between his management practices and the issues he was struggling with. As Brandon was driving up to their lake cabin one day, he made the decision to do something about it. He found the Gabe Brown video that included Gabe’s cell phone number. So, he called Gabe, and true to what everybody says, Gabe personally answered, talking with Brandon as though they were neighbors.
That conversation Brandon started his journey down the regenerative path, even though the early steps were small and tentative. He bought radish seed from Gabe that fall (2018), enough to seed 80 acres of cover crop. While it was seeded late and didn't really amount to much, it still provided a way to see life in his fields that fall.
When he picked up the radish seed, Gabe encouraged Brandon to attend a Soil Health Academy in Bismarck later that fall. Brandon and two other neighbors went on what he expected to be just a “fun guys’ trip,” but it ended up being quite eye-opening. In a subsequent meeting, Gabe encouraged Brandon to next attend an Understanding Ag training event in Missouri the following spring.
Brandon and his wife, with another couple, went to the event on Ray Archuleta’s farm in Missouri. He says the full days of driving both to and from the venue were well worth it. From that day forward, Brandon feels like they hit the ground running, implementing regenerative practices on most of their farm as quickly as possible. It wasn’t every acre that first year, but they seeded a lot of cover crops that first fall.
Brandon reports they are seeing progress, that the regenerative system is working, but the process isn’t fast because you are dealing with nature and soil. As Brandon points out, it takes time to restore soil function more closely to how nature intended because people have been destroying these soils in this part of the country for over 120 years. They can’t be fully healed in just three years but Brandon is committed to the process of regeneration and the time it takes to get there. After all, regenerative agriculture is a journey, not a destination.
When asked about his neighbors’ response to his switch to regenerative agriculture, Brandon said many have claimed it won’t work, that he is setting himself up for failure. When planting sunflowers into very tall wheat stubble, for example, a neighbor warned that cutworms would be disastrous, there wouldn’t be any crop left. Brandon did it anyway and did so without using any insecticide the field in question had minimal cutworm pressure. The same farmer that issued the warning did end up complimenting Brandon on how nice the crop was that fall.
Brandon in one of his Cover Crop Fields
His neighbors are watching, but most farmers are very reluctant to change. They want to see that it works for others first, before they are willing to take steps to change because they don't want to risk a financial setback and many don't want to have somebody else talking bad about them. Brandon says farmers making a change to regenerative production need thick skin to not care what other people think. Being introduced to a new supporting network of peers and mentors is one of the major benefits of attending a Soil Health Academy.
KEY INFLUENCES AND INFLUENCERS
When asked about key influences and influencers, Brandon quickly acknowledged God as his first key influencer. He truly believes God directed him to that first YouTube video and has opened his eyes enough to see the problems on his own land and to have an open enough mind to pursue something different. “Without the good Lord,” Brandon says, “I would never be here. So, all the credit goes to Him to start with.” Second in line is Gabe Brown, who Brandon says has been nothing but helpful, guiding Brandon in the right direction and keeps nudging him along the way. Ray Archuleta was also extremely helpful when the Bock’s were down at his farm.
Brandon has some close friends who have been helpful along the regenerative path as well.
Marlo and Kelly Stromberg, Kelly and DeAnna Lozensky, and Kent Schmaltz have been very helpful along the way, peers who are going down the regenerative path, too. This circle of like-minded friends share experiences and ideas and regularly exchange news and research that they find with one another.
REGENERATIVE PRACTICES AND PRINCIPLES
Bock Farms minimizes soil disturbance through the use of no-till planting and the only time they use tillage is to correct rutted areas in fields that were too wet. They have also cut back on insecticide and fungicide use. In 2022, Brandon reported using some of both on a few acres but his goal is to further reduce the use of both. One of the beautiful things about regenerative agriculture is that producers still have access to all the “tools in the toolbox,” if needed. The key for regenerative producers is the “judicious use” of any tool that has the potential to harm soil life or that is costly.
The Bocks use cover crops wherever they can, extending the amount of time each year they have living roots in the soil. They also try to keep the ground covered to maintain “armor” on the soil as much as possible to protect the soil surface from erosion and temperature extremes.
Brandon has implemented stripper headers to leave the stubble taller as additional armor for the soil. This strategy works extremely well in drier conditions and in drought. However, wet snow conditions presented challenges due to the difficulty in getting into the field in a timely fashion for spring planting when wet and cold conditions persisted. As Brandon says, “You can have the best laid plans, but they don't always work out.” That is why regenerative agriculture stresses adaptive practices and implementing the 6-3-4 is the best way to accomplish his regenerative goals (Fact Sheets).
In the Field
Brandon acknowledges animal integration is a key principle to restoring soil health, but the lack of cattle in his area makes that a challenge. Much of the land that had been previously grazed, such as low-lying river bottom areas and hilly ground, was removed from production and put into a wildlife reserve. The move restricted access to grazing land, and now anything that can be farmed is tilled and farmed. However, the potential for adaptively grazing the farmed land exists. Brandon is interested in exploring the possibility of rotating and grazing cover crops in his fields to see if the benefits would offset the land rental costs and defray at least some of future fertility requirements on his land. Brandon is open to possibly integrating some sort of livestock in a full rotation, which could be accomplished through custom grazing, or by purchasing feeder cattle and grazing them in the summer, or spring through fall, before selling. He’s not interested in attempting to overwinter cattle on his place.
Due to weather conditions in the spring of 2022, Brandon had the opportunity to integrate some livestock on a few acres and while it’s only a small part of the farm, he feels it's a step in the right direction. Brandon was presented with an interesting scenario to conduct a regenerative production experiment that spring, which was an atypically wet spring. He was unable to get 240 acres of his land seeded so those acres qualified for “Prevent Plant.” Under that federal program, Brandon was able to seed a 16-species cover crop mix on those acres in late June.
As the cover crops grew and matured, Brandon offered the opportunity to graze those seeded acres to a cattleman who took him up on the offer. The cattle producer, who installed temporary electric fencing and watering facilities, was amazed at the grazing quality of the diverse cover crop mix provided, which was especially unique for that area of North Dakota. This was the first time Brandon had cattle integrated on any of his rented land since he started farming. While this “experiment” was only on 240 acres, it represents a start and Brandon is excited to see how the land responds to animal integration.
Brandon recognizes that this was a unique opportunity driven by weather conditions in the spring of 2022. He was able to take a potentially disastrous situation with ground too cold and wet to plant and reap benefits by planting multispecies cover crops. He is not sure if it is possible to do that in a normal year, particularly on rented land. Rather than using a 16-way cover crop mix, Brandon is considering planting a two- or three-seed crop mix, harvesting the seeds, selling the cash grain, and making a profit. Another strategy he’s considering is growing corn or sunflowers, interseeding a cover crop mid-season, then harvesting the cash crop while the multispecies cover crop underneath continues to grow and heal the land. A number of regenerative farmers are actively interseeding cover crops into corn at the V2-V4 stage with good success, particularly with wider row spacing, seeding the corn at 40-60-inch centers. The Menoken Demonstration Farm in Central North Dakota, specifically, is having success with this approach (Menoken Farm | Advancing Soil Health).
To help protect the soil biology, the Bocks have started using compost tea instead of seed treatments on their small grain crops. They use a more fungal-dominant compost to brew their compost tea which they then spray onto their seed at a rate of about 20 gallons of tea to treat 350 to 400 bushels of seed. This introduces a broad array of beneficial fungi and bacteria into their soil as cheaply and easily as possible.
Brandon has eliminated soybeans from the mix because of their negative impact on the soil. They leave little plant residue/armor on the surface after harvest and soybeans take their toll on water infiltration rates. Brandon admits that, in the short term, soybeans return more financially and seem to make more sense, but the longer-term drawbacks and the challenges with soybeans in his farming environment are just too much to ignore.
KEY POINTS OF PROGRESS AND SUCCESS
The first point of progress Brandon pointed to is the near elimination of erosion. The high level of soil surface protection offered by maintaining tall stubble after harvest has been quite effective at limiting wind erosion and he reports minimal water erosion as well. His water infiltration rates have improved, even in the short time that he’s been farming regeneratively.
Brandon has limited baseline measurements of soil characteristics prior to moving to regenerative production, but in the summer of 2022, he did some tests, including water infiltration studies, soil compaction studies, soil organic matter, and CO2 respiration levels. The Haney test results indicate that their CO2 respiration is higher now compared to when they started. Also, the amount of organically available nitrogen is roughly about three times what it was when they started—and when they would have done well to have an extra 20-30 pounds of nitrogen credit above and beyond what the nitrate test showed. Now, they’re getting upwards of 80 to 100 pounds of soil-available nitrogen.
Brandon cautions against just taking the test results as gospel because it takes rainfall to trigger the microbes to properly make the nutrients available, so it’s important to “know your context.” It's not as simple as just looking at test results and concluding that no fertilizer is necessary. Brandon uses his barley fields as a recent example. The Haney test results suggested no need for much added nitrogen, but the barley was definitely yellow, indicating it was short on fertility. The nitrogen was there but the biology was not making it available, which is why Brandon stresses the need to be cautious and to take advantage of all the tools available to meet your needs, like applying foliar spray fertility–all of which highlight the importance of scouting fields and paying close attention to what's happening.
Brandon reports that his weed pressure has changed dramatically since implementing regenerative farming principles. He’s seeing different weeds than they used to and more importantly, many of his problem weeds, such as Kochia, fail to thrive as much as they did in the past when soil nitrate levels were high from over-fertilizing. He says that as they have backed off on synthetic fertility and herbicide use, the weed pressure has diminished.
He feels that is nature's signaling that they are not fully there yet in their soil healing process by growing plants from the soil seed bank that reflect a specific issue or problem. He is witnessing a very specific and purposeful succession of plant species volunteering from the seed bank.
Before, when their soils were so degraded, only certain weeds grew. But now, as the soils heal, Brandon says it’s as if nature is saying, “I want this weed for this soil type at this point.” He gives the example of one field that had a fair amount of marestail weed or horseweed. Walking through the field observing, he noticed that while the grasshopper pressure was significant, there were also many crickets in the field so he opted to let nature balance itself out, accepting some losses to the grasshoppers, but not harming the populations of beneficial insects by spraying the grasshoppers. As he and Jessie walked through the field, they noticed the marestail were going to seed, with their little rosettes with seeds blowing in the wind. They also noticed crickets all over the marestail plants, eating the seeds off the rosettes. The crickets were taking care of his wheat crop.
Had Brandon sprayed insecticide to kill the grasshoppers, there would have been no crickets to help address his weed problem. Insects are opportunistic creatures; they find the highest energy source foods that they can and for crickets, weed seeds are a high-energy food source. Earthworms eat weed seeds, too. By concentrating on no-till production, even if some weeds go to seed, Brandon is confident that, as long as those seeds never get buried in the soil and as long as there are healthy worms and beneficial insect populations, very few of those weeds will ever have opportunity to grow.
As to successes observed in their transition to regenerative production methods, Brandon quickly pointed to the life returning to the land. Whether pheasants, songbirds, partridge, deer, coyotes, and so on, the returning wildlife has been incredible. Brandon cites the distinct comparison between his cover crop fields, thick and lush with ample bird and wildlife activity, to his neighbor’s conventional crop with very few birds or other wildlife. It seems the wildlife want nothing to do with the neighbor’s field, and to Brandon, it’s clear that nature prefers the regenerative approach.
The insect populations are growing, too, and he has some pest insects, but Brandon has been encouraged by the growth in beneficial insect populations. Lady Beetles, many other beetle species, crickets, and spiders are increasing significantly and in addition, earthworm populations are skyrocketing. Brandon calls it incredible and attributes the change to his cover crops that keep living roots in the soil for as long as possible.
As mentioned earlier, improved water infiltration rates are another success Brandon noted. He reports less water ponding on the soil surface now and the saline areas in his fields are getting smaller. Those low, flat areas used to be just white where nothing would grow but now, those areas are full of weeds. Nature has started the healing process by growing plants there that form microbial associations that desalinate the soil. Brandon calls that a win because the weeds are plant life indicating improved soil health.
Increasing life, improving water infiltration, enhancing water cycling and water quality and creating better quality of life are all key benefits that Brandon is experiencing. For him and his family, it is of utmost importance to leave the land better for future generations.
Looking back, Brandon notes that he was not being as good of a steward as he thought. He stated that many farmers seem to think it's okay to force their way on nature for the sake of short-term profits but he feels that this must be changed for the benefit of future generations.
KEY ISSUES AND CHALLENGES
A key issue Brandon has faced in the transition to regenerative agriculture has been pest problems, particularly insects. However, much can be attributed to the recent years of drought which provides conditions for grasshoppers to thrive. Given the insect pressure, Brandon has opted to refrain from spraying every acre with insecticides because of the benefits of more balanced insect populations. Brandon sprayed one field because the grasshopper pressure was too high to ignore and prior to spraying, that field did not have as many crickets as other fields. He knows he killed beneficial insects in spraying the insecticide and regrets spraying because he firmly believes that they’ll never see the progress they want if they keep setting themselves back by also killing the beneficial insects. When he reflects on what he saw in that field with the marestail, with the crickets eating weed seed, Brandon now considers the damage he inflicted on that other field. He knows they still have a way to go, in both their practices and in their thought process.
Another challenge encountered has been appropriately adapting fertilization rates for the various crops based on Haney test results. For example, the test results for the barley fields going into 2022 didn't call for much fertility and they followed the soil test recommendations. However, performance in the field suggested the crop was definitely short in nitrogen and/or other fertility. Brandon feels that just because his crop looked short on nitrogen doesn't necessarily mean that it was. It's possible the field was lacking in some micronutrient or element, like manganese, boron, zinc, etc. This represents an area where Brandon feels, as he continues down the regenerative path, that more intensive management could potentially be beneficial. He’s considering implementing some form of tissue sampling to increase accuracy in measuring plant nutrient needs.
A third key challenge Brandon reports facing is dealing with wheat curl mites and the wheat streak mosaic virus they spread, underscoring the importance of “boots on the ground,” active observation throughout the growing season. Wheat streak mosaic has affected some neighbors, which Brandon says is something he is actively trying to avoid. Being cognizant of the potential risks, he knows the importance of monitoring and scouting their fields to avoid affecting neighbors negatively. One soil health principle is keeping living roots in the soil for as long as possible throughout the year and Brandon agrees with that rule, but also sees the need for caution. If he plants winter wheat or cereal rye to keep living roots in the soil then he may risk spreading disease to neighboring farms. Supporting beneficial insects that prey on wheat curl mites is key to their management which means being more strategic about the cover crops he does plant–considering what type of mixes can he plant that provide the diversity needed to attract and harbor the beneficial insects. Beneficial insects that prey on the mites include lady beetles, lacewings, green lacewings, white flies, stethorus, and predatory thrips, which many flowering cover crop species are able to attract and to provide habitat for them.
Brandon chooses to maintain access to some chemicals because of the limitations of the environment at Bock Farms. For example, when growing cereal rye recently, he couldn’t use a roller-crimper to adequately terminate the rye because the growing season is too short. Instead, he used Roundup to terminate the cover crop. They followed that cover crop with flax, which the Roundup didn’t kill. When he sent flax samples to a seed testing lab in South Dakota for analysis, he found there was no detectable glyphosate. Brandon feels that with properly timed herbicide use on crops in healthy soils, the soil microbes can break down the chemicals used, and they won't end up in the final grain product. He says it’s important to treat chemicals as a tool available when needed; if they were forced to quit chemicals and herbicides cold turkey, they would “face a weed disaster.” Today, Brandon focuses on his management—how he can decrease chemical use while controlling weeds and pests while producing nutrient-dense food that minimizes chemical risk.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THOSE CONSIDERING REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
Brandon’s first recommendation to someone considering adopting regenerative agriculture practices is to get educated and to accept the reality that there is so much to learn. He says that if someone doesn’t understand the basics of how soil is supposed to function, they’ll fail every time. There are so many options for education. Plenty of information is available for free, much of it good, some of it not so good, he says, so Brandon challenges people to consider the teaching offered by the Soil Health Academy, to dedicate time to self-education and visiting other farms that are actively implementing regenerative practices. He wholeheartedly endorses the structured classroom and field activities of organizations like the Soil Health Academy as great places to learn. He feels this structure, all taught in a group setting with opportunity to interact with fellow students, makes Soil Health Academy training hard to beat.
Brandon stressed what Gabe teaches: “You must change the way you see things over changing the way you do things” and that people need to open their eyes and look around. With experience they can figure out what is not functioning properly and why. Today, Brandon likes to look around and consider what is functioning properly. In doing so, he finds that many things are functioning properly. In the context of the whole, he now recognizes that what he previously considered “problems” may be indications of nature trying to heal itself. In the past, he was so programmed to isolate only on specific problems, such as insects, fertility, or weeds, he felt he was chasing his tail trying to address each individually. He encourages others to not look at their fields as a problem, but instead as a success—what is going well? What opportunities exist to build upon?
Next, Brandon suggests not jumping in too quickly, unless someone is financially able to absorb a loss. “Start slowly and grow into it,” he says, and IF there are failures, he encourages people to not view them as failures, but as learning opportunities instead. He’s seen it all too often, others who have tried something once and it didn’t work, so they quit. Brandon suggests instead, learn what happened and why and then improve next time. Farmers should stay close to their comfort zone and within their financial means, and most of all, they “should pay attention—observe what's going on and give it a fair shot.”
PRODUCTION AND FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE
Brandon attributes the bulk of the economic success he’s experienced to decreased input costs, significantly reducing chemical and synthetic fertilizer use. He estimates a 50% reduction in insecticide and fungicide use compared to usage before his move to regenerative production in 2018. Reductions in chemical fertilizer are similar, down 50-60% from what was previously applied. Using chemical-use assumptions from enterprise budgets published by North Dakota State University, the annual savings on chemicals are estimated at $30, $47, $74, and almost $82 per-acre for flax, sunflowers, spring wheat, and winter wheat, respectively.
Another major benefit they’ve enjoyed is far fewer hours on equipment. Before changing to regenerative production, he was making six passes per field spraying, but now, most fields get 1-2 passes, depending on the year. Hours on the sprayer, diesel use and the chemicals sprayed are cut to less than a third of what they were prior. Less time operating the sprayer also allows Brandon to spend more time focused scouting his fields so he can make better regenerative decisions and it also allows more time to plan cover crop design mixes and to prepare for seeding in the fall.
Overall, Brandon says some yields are down slightly and are more variable across crops compared to before. Yields are up for some crops because of the additional stored moisture in the soil and Brandon is quick to point out that yields don't pay the bills. “Net profit pays the bills,” he says. “Neighboring farmers just want to talk about yield, not net profitability. But net profitability is all that matters.“
One observation that is becoming more prevalent and consistent is that crop resilience is improving year over year. As farming conditions become more challenging and weather patterns less predictable, crop resilience is a significant benefit.
While the primary economic benefit hasn't been from the yields harvested compared to when he farmed conventionally, crop diversity has been a primary economic driver. Previously, for example, Brandon didn’t grow flax, primarily because crop insurance support is lacking. In the spring of 2020, while in a D3 drought, Brandon decided to reintroduce flax to his rotation because of its soil health benefits and despite the risks of limited crop insurance support should the crop fail in the drought, the Bocks decided to seed flax anyway because it best fit their long-term goal of improving soil health. It worked out well because flax prices shot up that fall due to a limited market supply. Despite marginal yields, they were rewarded well for adding that extra crop to their rotation.
Brandon acknowledges that he will need to resist the tendency to revert to conventional production practices. It would be easy, he says, to resume managing conventionally on a year-to-year basis, focusing only on making as much money as possible each year without considering the longer-term consequences of his production choices. Instead, Brandon intentionally stays focused on his soil-health goals, specifically, “Taking care of soil first.” Brandon recognizes that he can progressively move towards improved soil health and boosted soil organic matter by implementing a proper crop rotation and by planting cover crops; basically, making the right regenerative management decisions. And in the process, he chooses not to focus exclusively on the financial side. As they continue the process, Brandon realizes that some decisions and strategies may not always work. But he says he doesn’t really care, because he feels confident they can withstand temporary setbacks as they continue their journey along the regenerative agriculture path.