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Accountant to Farmer: Finding Moisture in Dry Soil Conditions

Douglas Poole in front of his tractor

Douglas Poole is an evangelist who saved his own soil. Now he wants to help others save theirs. Photo: Jennifer Cole.

“Nothing motivates me quite like being told I can’t do something. They told me no-till doesn’t work here, and you’re not supposed to be able to grow any type of canola. Well, look around. Here we are.”

When Douglas Poole speaks, you can hear the passion in his voice for healthy soil and how it has helped his farm. Poole wasn’t always a soil health proponent; he used to be an accountant.

Poole is a dryland farmer of winter wheat in Mansfield, one of the driest parts of Washington State. The area receives seven to nine inches of rain per year, and with so little water, Poole needed to find a system more efficient than conventional farming for his crops to flourish.  He decided no-till was the way to go.

“In the beginning, it was more of an opportunity to see if I could save labor, overhead and everything else. The more I researched it, the more I saw that it wasn’t so much no-till as it was soil. That was really the driver,” said Poole.

But support for no-till in Poole’s community was lacking.

Wheat

In the future, Poole’s vision is for his land to be completely covered at all times. Currently his land is roughly two-thirds of that. He plans to have no fallow land within ten years. Photo: Jennifer Cole.

To get started with no-till and other soil health practices, Poole went to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In 2012, he was awarded one of the first Energy Initiative contracts through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This contract allowed him to partially convert his operation to no-till, implement cover crops and crop rotations. He was able to convert the remainder of his farm to no-till practices through the EQIP Air Quality Initiative in 2015.

Poole has implemented no-till practices, and now has crop rotations including canola, sunflowers and spring crops.

“To me it’s all related – no-till needs cover crops and cover crops need no-till.”

However, it’s still a conservation practice combination that many conventional growers are hesitant to try, especially in 10-inch precipitation zones.

Poole’s soil health approach isn’t faith-based. He’s constantly researching soil health practices that improve his soil, and he has participated in several cover crop studies with his local conservation district, as well as some of his own.

Poole recently decided to let his last cover crop grow throughout the year, rather than terminating it.

“We found that if we could have that diversity of root growth in soil, we could actually gain moisture. Almost like we are farming moisture. And obviously, that enhances the soil.”

In the future, Poole’s vision is for his land to be completely covered at all times. Currently his land is roughly two-thirds of that. He plans to have no fallow land within ten years.

“I can’t even imagine being a conventional farmer and looking to the future. I feel like those of us that have made the conversion have a future.”

He’s an evangelist who saved his own soil. Now he wants to help others save others’.

To learn about the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and how NRCS can help you install conservation practices on your land, including information on soil health and conservation assistance, contact your local USDA service center or learn how to get started with NRCS online.

Douglas Poole kneeling in front of his tractor

Poole needed to find a system more efficient than conventional farming for his crops to flourish. He decided no-till was the way to go. Photo: Jennifer Cole.

5 Responses to “Accountant to Farmer: Finding Moisture in Dry Soil Conditions”

  1. james cook says:

    That is a great story! “Almost like we are farming moisture.” That is the takeaway for NRCS and agriculture. Not farming crops–farming the SOIL!

  2. John Molohon says:

    Hey Douglas congratulations! Think our years together often. Enjoyed working with you.

  3. karl says:

    what is the best way to build the soil from land that has never been farmed and still covered with 4″ tall sage brush.

  4. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @karl – soil creation takes hundreds of years. Keeping the soil covered and using no-till farming methods is the best way to build healthy soils. Sage brush can provide critical habitat for many species of locally or regionally threatened wildlife. Contact your local NRCS office for further assistance on available conservation programs and suggested land use.

  5. John says:

    Great article. Karl, Several ranchers are working on just that question here in eastern and south central Montana. We do not believe it takes hundreds of years to build soil. Only if you look at the erosion of rock by water and wind. When we attend to the biology in the soil and work to increase and bring balance to it, that possibility changes everything. Lots of experimentation and research about other parts of the world addressing the same issues. Biology seems to be the key!

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