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253. No-Till Farming ~ Nutrient Rich Soil Health Expert| Steve Szudera | BEACH, N.D.

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I’m excited to introduce Steve Szudera from North Dakota who’s going to talk to us about No-Till Farming and soil health, we talked a little bit before when he did an interview with me.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a no-till famer

Check out Steve’s website at tabletopfarmer.com

grain farm

western North Dakota, eastern Montana on the border

going through some drought

tired of watching the soil

blow away

1981 made our first no till pass

In ’82 I bought my own drill we were doing it for wind and water erosion

In the 90’s we had created a mono culture

wheat on wheat on wheat

Our first rotation was field peas that helped tremendously!

towards the mid 90s

a little bit further

I was introduced to Dr. Dwayne Beck

he’s still on that research 

He started diversifying our rotations

similar to whats in the prairie

so we started adding a more diverse rotation, teaching us we had to add similar to what’s in the prairie. We started adding a more diverse rotation to that

warm season grasses

warm season broadleaf

cool season grass and broadleaf

get intensity up

how to use whole water profile not just the top 

a lot of our nitrates were going 

at some point in time goes into 

  • water tables
  • water systems

healthy things there as well

Then about four years ago this month I was at a conference for a different reason

I mentioned something I was interested in doing for the last several years

teaching gardeners what I was doing.

how to take the principles I have learned and teach it to gardeners.

very little information

about no-till gardening 4 years ago

out there by myself doing a lot of things

I did some suggestions

It started out as a container situation

The first one failed miserably and I knew we had to change our 

media mix

two and a half years go, three

struggle

What do you mean by container thing?

container gardening indoor

what they watered indoor

grow boxes

earth boxes

build living soil indoors

Take that environment I have growing outdoors and bring it indoors

do it indoors teach people how to garden all year round

I took a bobcat out in one of my fields, we ended up there for 3-4 days trying to figure out how are we gonna capture our soil

At that time it was 34 years of continuous no-till, every time we tried to capture a 12 foot profile it would just fall apart

so alive

and crumbly

wouldn’t stay together

soil that is

living rich soil

wants to just crumble

12 inches deep

We eventually accomplished that we built a box around it in the fired brought it indoors and it failed miserably that soil indoors

It’s just made to be outdoors

So we had to establish a media mix that will work for raised beds as well as container gardening. We were able to do that about 3 years ago and then apply the principles we use in a no-till scenario of building nutrient rich soil and doing it in a container making it so it survives

we work on a lot of testing things yet

always improving things 

tabletop farmer

in that error where we can teach people how to thrive.

2015 we took it outdoors

there was a lot of demand to take it outdoors

We started looking for people who had gardens, we could take gardens that was completely worn out

Sarah’s little angels that was so infested with weeds it was unbelievable with the weed growth. We applied our 

no-till principles

  • fabric barrier
  • developed a watering system to water the roots
  • natural fertilizer system

neat part of about that whole

18 by 80 feet long

amazing part about we didn’t pull one weed all summer.

no weeding

no backbreaking part to start

who’s we and what’s table top farmer?

Table Top Famer started out container on your table top

I labeled myself as the table top farmer

It expanded from outdoors to inside as well?

The outdoor side of it is that we can grow outdoors naturally grow nutrient dense produce and do it all naturally 

  • without any soil amendments
  • without any backbreaking work

I have help

Some friends that help out

My hired man that I hired on the grain farm gets stuck doing something 

Worm farm

commercially do worm castings

The reason I did that was I wanted a consistent product. I wanted to know what I had not something someone else was making that I was shipping in. I wanted a 

natural grain

not something that had maybe a pesticide in int

worms will break that down but I wanted to make sure when I tell people that it’s a natural product it is

What all are you growing?

Anything in these featured gardens, what we would grow, we would go through the corns

we learned that there were certain wind loads, so we would plant corn on those outside to help break the wind

  • zucchini
  • lots of tomatoes
  • pumpkins for the kids

How big is your place again?

We did these featured gardens for a year or two

The property that Sarah’s Little Angels was on was sold, so we are starting Serenity Farm and Garden. That I own, on some property as part of my farm.

We purchased a high tunnel this summer to do some testing

IDK if you are familiar with high tunnels, they’re a fabric where the sun can come through.

There’s a huge demand for those in this area

get in earlier and stay later in the fall. 

It also helps keep pests out and helps you regulate your water a little as well too right?

I have a friend on a farm east of us doing it about 5 years, I’ll be a student of Jay’s as well

There are mistakes that can be made, of course lots of mistakes, he will help us avoid those. There’s a learning curve to it.

Not everybody is going to purchase a high tunnel but there small green houses people can purchase too.

There’s a program that people can utilize through the NRC I did an interview with Andrew Malucelli about the program in Episode 117. We applied but we didn’t get approved but one of these days we will.

It’s interesting – Community Gardens

I’ve ran into church groups that try to do gardening, they’re interested in this approach. Naturally we have to get it up and the training to teach them how to do it but I see a big benefit for community gardens.

the one that I am familiar with turns into a big wreck with certain things that happen to it. I think high tunnels would be good for community gardens.

a lot of avenues we’re running with this

I am a soil health expert

I am an expert

I’ve been good

You’re doing it on a bigger scaled then most people I have talked to.

It isn’t quite that big, a large farmer in this are is several thousand acres!

We’re not that big in this area. We’re a couple thousand acres.

We have honed in on those, We have been more niche oriented.

Value added crops

We raise things like garbanzo beans

We have buyers waiting, they’re calling 30 days before harvest to tell us, you know we have a bin open for you! We have space available for you!

That’s generally unknown, but they know that we are capable, depending on the weather. It’s a really good feeling.

They know we are able to produce a high quality crop and a high producing crop that they can trust! 

Lentils

I got a call the other day, text message from a buyer looking for white proso millet bcause he knows thats part of my warm season rotation

evolved

used to farm a lot more acres

niche orientated

quite frankly the bottom line gets better for us when we can do that

Niche oriented and more profitable  on less acreage sounds good to everyone doesn’t it?! How big did you say?

It’s a couple thousand acres, but your market farmers are on 1/4 acre and they’re pushing the production side of things there as well

There’s a lot of things we can learn on that area, I have been studying that area as well to see how we can build better soil health for what they are doing.

Our whole focus is so they have a  nutrient dense crop. That’s what we want is the nutrients back in the plant.

Well that’s what I want I know to eat healthy food.

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

Actually my first experience was with my mother, as a little guy I watched her garden.

She had a very little garden that was fenced because of other things out there for things they were raising

  • chickens
  • livestock

I remember dad taking the fence down on one end and plow it for her

she would plant into that. I do remember my mother coming in being totally exhausted from working in that garden. It was kind of therapeutic as well, but I looked at the labor that was involved. We would get out there and when we would do sometime wrong, which we did, she was very specific on the way she did things. She had a pattern on the way she had done things that was the way it was. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time out there, but I watched what she did and quite frankly that turned me away from gardening because I saw the labor she did, and I thought that’s a second job.

At least a second job if not a full time job. So then 

How did you learn how to garden organically?

well I actually

the no-till thing came relatively out in the field. To move it into an indoor setting was tough. Much tougher then outdoor. I can’t say we have a total no-till system but we have a system where we can renew the soil by the same methods as what the soil is built underneath our feet. 

So you never have to buy new potting soil again! Outdoors it was relatively simple. I basically just started thinking about different ways the raindrop falls.

If we think about how the raindrop falls on cement is it splashes.

this is what they teach inside of our no-till farming

When it splashes it carries up soil up with it, those spores hit our crops and those start disease and I thought gardening has to be the same way. 

The first thing I did was I built a garden with armor on top. 

the insulated layer, I’m not talking about compost

In my world we have to be careful not to get too much compost on top because then we start with other issues. The armor is a layer of carbon to insulate this top layer, then we start thinking, how are we going to water it? Because we have chlorines that aren’t in rain water. 

issues there

visited with other gardeners

soaker system that we actually put in the soil. 

worked on and tested

put in the soil methods where we instal it so it irrigates the roots that is on a timely manor. 

The interesting part bout that whole process was we able to use 70% of the water where you have drought

That makes sense. 

In areas like San Diego where water, good water, is limited, even though they are surrounded by oceans, the water that is usable, the people who are saving gray water in gardens, there are systems set up for that. 

Outdoor Systems for Gardeners

I took the systems that I’ve used outdoors over 30 years  and brought them full circle and used them in gardening. The neat thing about gardening is we are able to what I call put that on steroids because we can speed up the process!

We can see results in 30 days or less by applying principals of this system. The reason being is because in a farming scenario we have 4-5 months of growing and then the rest that we call

  • frost
  • cold
  • snow
  • etc

Then we have to wait for the next season where we can try again. In gardening we can speed up the process. But we can build soil health in a garden

Where would you tell listeners to start?

The best way to start next years garden is in the fall!

Fall prep is no different for farming.

Farm and ranch

on the cover with my striper header showing how I keep the residue on top of the soil.

If you think about gardening everyone is concerned with is what they look like in the fall and they haul everything off to the landfill!

They are hauling away the best part of next years garden, all that residue is filled with trace reside that is good for next years plants as well as they are nitrates tied up as well and units that plant would use as it goes down into the soil.

If I was to say anything

  • don’t haul stuff to the landfill
  • use it for next year

I love that I totally think that soil health is the way to start!

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

Probably our Paul scraps?

If you are looking at the farm

we’re still in a drought 2017 cycle in 2017

We didn’t have any water reserve built up in our soil

Probe

probably that stops when you hit dry

We want at least 2 feet of soil moisture when we plant in the spring that way we know we can get the crop growing. This year we were at best at 18 inches in the spring. We got some timely rains but not a lot of rain and it shut off right after the 4th of July. It was like we turned the faucet off, but in the 3rd week in July got hot. Some areas were coming on really good but when it got dry, of course it started growing backwards

We had garbanzo beans in an area that was good

lentil that were ok

durham in some areas that did well 

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

I’m excited to get our high tunnel going! We’re actually building some soil indoors for that as we speak. Meaning I started an interesting project that started by accident through a conversation with a guy who 

he threw some plants out one time in the fall. He threw them in some tires

the ones that were touching the soil filled up with worms

wondering what the attraction was?

I said, worms are always looking for living roots!

That’s the sugars and fungi that the plants emit through the exudites. That’s their natural food.

I was going by a shopping cart of expired plants that they were throwing out

lightbulb came on so I called that store, I was actually able to dig the plants of the dumpster. I asked them if I could. Itook them out, brought them in here. We started a project called the:

ultimate diy potting soil

named it

We have a system where we vermicompost that. It took us a while to learn how to do it. There’s a certain kind of worm, it’s a fussy worm but it’s like the piranha of the composting world.

It’s amazing what you get when you ask!

I started asking for these plants that were expired, again the hired men weren’t so happy with me when I showed up with a dump trailer of plants

need to be deplaned and tops cut off and keep them in these big totes. We just bring them in and add water to them. We will have all natural soil

taken that soil

jackie

We keep planting over and over to see if we can wear it out

as long as we keep that process going and we don’t have to go to the store and buy any new potting soil.

So, what are you adding to it besides the plants? Are you adding compost or hugel culture?

We are actually not adding a thing to it. I have a worm farm that i do commercial castings with, we build

super soil

we don’t have a website tied to it. We have the domain name called getsupersoil.com someday there will be something there. But we’re still in testing phases if you’ve ever heard of

Endomycorrhizal fungi

I learned a lot about in my farm field from Dr. Beck.

The only way we can build that the fastest builders are the warm season crops

You can do it in your garden, we’re gonna do some testing down the road where we can teach people how to build the Endomycorrhizal fungi

The issue is that when people till it cuts it off, it ends it’s life. It’s done! Tillage ends its life of Endomycorrhizal fungi!

tillage

It’s root extenders is how it extends through the soil is the way I like to envision it. 

I have found a company that builds that organically! It’s all natural product we can add to our super soil. So we have Endomycorrhizal fungi and a micronutrient package that’s all natural we can put in with it. So if we are missing a few trace minerals we can naturally add these. These are organic products that are produc we can make a superfoil product. Sometimes we mix with this to give it a boost. 

I have not added anything to it we just put it through our vermi-composting process we have developed

I wanted to see if we could keep using this stuff? Over and over?! 

The living roots adds everything to the soil

think we have to pull something off the shelf

mother nature has been excluded

teach people it has been there all this time.

dr. beck taught me this. Take a snapshot of the prairie that’s been there for centuries. If you take a snap shot of that there are 137 different species of grass etc you will find

Each species helps to build and retired that soil to keep that plant growing

self sustaining within itself.

That’s what I’m trying to teach people to do.

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season?

The first thing was that if I take my soil out of the field, that is some 30 years old, it has to be the best thing ever born indoors! It failed miserably.

primarily the reason it failed it dried out

commercial heating systems

tough to keep that hydrated in the wintertime.

eventually it turned. You could keep watering it and you could all sorts of things to do to it. Looking back, there were probably things I could do to make it work.

wanted something for people that they could go to the store and buy something one time, and get 4 component stop hits media mix that we put together if they do this we can teach them how to never have to go back to the store again

things get in the way and that’s understandable, once you have the process, even if you mess up and forget to do one of them, you go on vacation. 

we have automatic things we have been working on as well

  • watering
  • lighting
  • so the process stays in tack
  • so they have the proper type of sunlight

if you get to the point where you can go away, you can come back and fix it

makes sense

Where does this happen? Hoop house? Greenhouse? Basement?

variety of ways where were teaching

ground level gardening, this spring we will have a course

  • your first no-till garden
  • We’re gonna release a soils course

hope to have it out in later November

people to understand the soil science

why they’re doing what they need to do with the soil

soil biology can be a boring topic it really can, I’ve sat through a lot of things with the extension service and everybody’s nodding off to sleep

It’s not an exciting sexy topic

We have worked to make it a little more interesting.

  • short and simple
  • have a good understanding
  • easy to grasp

They need to have that so when they go out in the garden they know this is why we need to do this

some people will need this and others wont

The goal is to garden on shelf

  • 4 tier shelf
  • on wheels
  • roll it around

If they want to grow

  • herbs
  • lettuce
  • maybe even some root crops

larger containers

  • elevated raised beds for nursing homes

We have some people doing some of that now but the key is learning how to keep that soil intact so don’t have to keep replacing it with new stuff, and when their plants aren’t growing.

outdoor ground level thing

raised bed gardening

take a garden people  have tilled for years teach them how to make it a no-till

  • they can park their hoe, tiller,
  • no more adding soil amendments to soil
  • some sort of hoop house etc

We’re not there yet, we do know a little bit about it, we know what we need to do with soil in there. There will be a variety of things. 

We have to take care of the soil and get that process going there.

Before we get to the root of things let’s thank our sponsors and affiliate links

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Now Let’s Get to the Root of Things!

Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden?

I can’t say there is, I love growing things. I love installing things. Gardening really excites me today because I know the end result!

I think that will be inspiring for listeners. I am all about convenience and this sounds like you are making it convenient for people, because my husband spoils me and mostly what I have to do is just go down with my seed packets after he has all the work done and the beds made I mean I do like the composting thing. 

What is your favorite activity to do in the garden?

Actually I love moving residue out of the way, and seeing what’s going on below the surface. That’s what really excites me! To see that soil change!

For me as a soils person that is probably as exciting I could look at what it does to the plants. We had 4 1/2 foot tomatoes after just 7 weeks, after the hail storms let up

had 4 hail storms

19th of July

we’re not gonna make it beef the frost hits and in 7 weeks they were 4 1/2 feet tall! It was crazy! They did very well in that soil!

What is the best gardening advice you have  ever received?

probably IDK I’d have to think about that

intersting

A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be?

Probably my watering, my that’s the key. I need to have my lines for my watering because that’s what makes it work.

So are there any special techniques for what makes that work, you’re talking bout burying them in the soil?

we put them in the soil

We have a process that we teach of how and we put our super soil in with that so that plant gets off to a good start.

We work a lot with soil that is completely worn out

We

  • planted seeds
  • transplant both
  • what your want to do

Depends on what you want to grow

One struggle has been finding good seed

The biggest issue is finding good seed, we recently uncovered some things I think in that seed development thing. 

So do you have an videos or anything on this? I know listeners are going to be curious where they can learn more.

We’re in the beginning stages of that

just got our channel

tabletop farmer

working on a facebook page

A favorite recipe you like to cook or eat from the garden?

I love oregano in the winter time in chicken and rice soup.

That oregano, take naturally grown oregano that adds a flavor like nothing else.

I love oregano, as an Italian basil and oregano are two of my essnetila.s

the other thing is

garlic powder

if I raise the garlic in the garden with the little green stem onions. Make natural garlic chives that just seems like I don’t have any issues eating that.

A favorite internet resource?

I mostly find myself searching for people that are testing, I am interested in a lot with what they’re doing with composting.

I compost in my garden

I don’t use a compost on the side, although it’s important, it’s part of the process of getting this going, it’s essential for getting it going. Especially in raised beds.

You can kind of park that theory composter

unless you have things that can get it going. 

Have we talked about Patti Armbrister, she’s on the East side probably closer to you, she’s in Hinsdale, and she talks a lot about the things you’re taking about.

A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?

Growing A Revolution Bringing Our Soil Bake To LIfe

Dave Montgomery who wrote Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life  who I interviewed in episode 186  and his wife Anne Bickle in episode 185 where we talked about the The Hidden Half of Nature.

Hidden Half of Nature The Microbial Roots of Life and Health

 I have a close friend John Sticka who has wrote a soil book as well.

A Soil Owner's Manual- How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.jpg

A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health

Do you have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?

no-till when you till you kill

That’s the simplest I can get. It sounds so simple but that urge to till is always there. 

You’re certainly not the first one to say that, actually it was Jon Moore and I was so nervous I was like what did you just say no-till but I have learned a lot since then. Sorry, I have to go I have another call. 

You can connect with Steve at tabletopfarmer.com

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The Organic Gardner Podcast is sponsored by Health IQ, an insurance company that helps health conscious people like runners, cyclists, weightlifters and vegetarians get lower rates on their life insurance.  Go to healthiq.com/OGP to support the show and see if you qualify.

Over half of Health IQ customers save between 4-33% on their life insurance.

Health IQ vegetables celebrating the health conscious

  • Health IQ uses science & data to secure lower rates on life insurance for health conscious people just like you green future growers! Like saving money on your car insurance for being a good driver, Health IQ saves you money on your life insurance for living a health conscious lifestyle.

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About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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