As week after week of no rain in the winter of 2022 turned into month after month of no rain in the spring of 2023, Austin Schweizer watched his once-promising fields of wheat grow more and more stressed, until by early May he was facing the reality that there might not be a wheat harvest. 

“I have three pallets of cover crop seed sitting in the storage building. When it finally does rain, I’m going to bring out the air seeder and I’m going to plant every open acre to cover crops,” he says. “We need cattle feed.”

More than Schweizer’s bottom line is on the line. That’s because Schweizer’s fields are a testing ground for what the future of Kansas agriculture could look like,  including being a resource in the fight against climate change. It’s an experiment that is, in many ways, working, even if the weather doesn’t always cooperate.

Schweizer is one of 21 farmers in south-central Kansas who are participating in a General Mills pilot project to encourage the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices. In 2019, General Mills committed to advancing regenerative agriculture on a million acres of farmland by 2030, and in 2020, the cereal giant committed to spending $3 million by 2030 to achieve its corporate goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% in the same time frame and to net zero by 2050.

Schweizer committed to regenerative ag at the beginning of his farming career. His dad and uncle are partners in a much larger conventional farming operation. This year, he says, his dad asked him to order cover crop seed for him.

Schweizer farms about 700 acres in 80-acre strips. He rotates dryland soybeans, dryland milo, sunflowers and a cover crop mix that includes rye or triticale with peas. This spring, in the midst of ongoing exceptional drought, the worst category on the U.S. Drought Monitor, he took a deep breath and planted his cash crops into cover crop residue.

On May 15, it rained. Not just a few drops in the dust, but a real 2.75-inch rain. 

Schweizer will harvest wheat. “It won’t be very good, but I am amazed that it’s still alive,” he says. 

Close up of hands inspecting wheat.
The wheat on Austin Schweizer’s land got a crop-saving rain in late spring, as did a big swath of Kansas. Nevertheless, the reputation of the Wheat State has taken a serious beating in recent years as drought shriveled yields. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

“But I’ll have a harvest.” 

After four weeks of catching some rain, he says he has subsoil moisture and he expects cover crops he just planted to flourish and is excited to be planting soybeans, milo and sunflowers.

Statewide, wheat experts are predicting that Kansas will have its worst wheat harvest since 1957. In spite of recent rains, much of south-central Kansas remains in exceptional drought. 

With a thick mat of cover crop mulch on the top of the soil, every precious drop of rain soaks deep into the soil and crops can hold on longer between rains. 

In 2022, Schweizer had a good soybean harvest in a year when his dad and uncle had to chop their corn for silage and bale their withered soybeans to salvage what cattle feed they could, a testament to the power of regenerative agriculture. 

“I grazed 60 cows on my soybean strip for 81 days,” he says. “I moved them every couple of days in small increments across the field. The combination of grazing and trampling gave me that great mat of mulch to plant into. And that mulch protected the field from drying out and helped the beans hang on long enough to benefit when the rain finally came.”

The mulch from cover crops is just one regenerative ag practice that helps plants gain those vital days. Keeping living roots in the ground also keeps microbial life in the soil alive and active. Those microbes break down organic matter to make nutrients available to the next crop. The constant canopy from cover crops and heavy mulch keeps weed seeds from germinating, and the deposits of manure and urine from livestock add natural fertilizer.

Another of regenerative agriculture’s benefits is drawing more participants, increasing the amount of carbon that is stored in the soil amid a growing interest in measuring carbon sequestration and selling credits to increase farm profitability.

“I didn’t have to add any fertilizer to those beans,” Schweizer says. “And weeds haven’t been a problem. Not having to add chemicals is not only better for the soil, but cheaper for me. And I get the added revenue from the cattle.”

Opportunity in carbon

General Mills chose south-central Kansas for part of that pilot because it’s the region from which much of the hard red winter wheat it buys is sourced. The company has similar projects in the Northern Plains region, where it sources oats, and a dairy pilot in the Great Lakes region.

The 21 farmers chosen for the Kansas project were among 150 participants in two Soil Health Academy two-day workshops. Most of those farmers are also members of the Cheney Lake Watershed conservation group, which was formed in 1994 to address water quality at Cheney Reservoir, which provides 70% of the drinking water for the 400,000 residents of Wichita.

“I wanted to be in that project because I’m really interested in being able to quantify what regenerative agriculture brings to the health of the soil,” Schweizer says. “And of course, I’m interested in gaining another revenue stream from carbon credits.

“I made the decision to go fully regenerative when I started farming in 2015,” he says. His 700 acres near Sterling are very sandy soils. “I came into my senior year of college convinced that I would embrace full tillage and lots of fertilizer, just like my dad and uncle. 

“Then I went to the No-Till on the Plains Conference, and I changed my mind. The more I studied the work of people like Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta (two of the earliest and best-known advocates for regenerative ag), the more I realized that we’d been doing it all wrong.”

He is looking forward to learning more during his participation in the General Mills project, which has partnered with Understanding Ag, a regenerative agriculture consulting firm, to provide consultants to each participant to help them in their efforts to improve their soil health practices. Brown is a founding partner in Understanding Ag.

Schweizer says he started out with very depleted soil after years of conventional tillage and heavy chemical and fertilizer use. It took only a couple of seasons of regenerative practices to start seeing an improvement in soil health.

“My dad and his brother farm a lot more acres than I do, and they’ve begun adopting no-till after seeing my results. They haven’t gotten to full regenerative, but they are moving that direction,” he says. 

It is easy to spot the results of conventional tillage in road ditches, where the soil looks more like beach sand than soil. Left uncovered, the sand dries out. The famous Kansas winds pick it up, leaving swirls and eddies across the parched landscape. The surface heats quickly, evaporating whatever stored moisture is beneath.

Schweizer says the first thing he noticed after only a year of regenerative farming was that the soil, while still sandy, was noticeably darker.

“That’s stored carbon,” he says. Scooping up a handful for soil, he sifts through it, leaving a handful of tiny clumps. “These aggregates started appearing after a few years. That’s organic matter, and it holds a lot of water.”

Leaving it better for next generation

A few miles away from Schweizer’s farm, Kingman County farmer and businessman Dave Stucky has postponed retirement from his 275-acre farm and supplemental business ventures. 

“We kind of changed job descriptions and kept going,” he says. 

He plants both spring and fall mixtures of cover crops. Five years ago, he made a deal with a neighbor who has cattle to utilize his cover crops for grazing.

“We’re running bred heifers on three plots of cover crop, moving them all the time. We love it and the cattle do really, really well,” he says. “I really enjoy working with the cattle. They get used to being moved and just start moving when they see me coming.”

He also has a couple of 55-acre wheat plots and, after getting four inches of rain during May, he plans to plant milo after harvesting the wheat. “It’ll be a poor harvest – maybe 15 bushels to the acre. But it’ll make enough to be worth harvesting, especially with prices up. And with the new weather pattern we seem to be getting into, I’m really hopeful the milo will do well.”

He sees regenerative agriculture as a way to leave his farm in better shape when his son Kelly eventually takes over, than it was when he inherited it.

  • Older man in trucker hat kneels on the ground to inspect the soil.
  • Man in trucker hat inspects solar panels connected to water tank.

In addition to his five 55-acre tracts of farmland, Stucky operates the Champion Ridge Inn Bed and Breakfast, a charming guest house created by a renovation of a dairy barn that was actively used when his parents farmed there, and the Champion Ridge RV Park.

Both of those businesses are flourishing, he says. 

Guests at the B&B get a chance to learn about the history of the building and the farm, just by studying the artwork that decorates the walls – pictures from the days when it was a working dairy.

A 30-foot pollinator strip that surrounds the property, planted to a mix of alfalfa, sunflowers and perennial plants, provides a beautiful background for guests at both the B&B and the RV Park.

“I got some help from EQIP (the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program) to plant that strip,” he says.

Stucky says he feels like he is leaving his son in good shape to take over the farming operation. He and his wife, Nancy, have another son, Nate, who is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and a daughter, Kara, who is married to a farmer in Nebraska who farms land planted to a corn and soybean rotation and irrigated with 36 center pivots.

Doing it for the land

Man in floppy fishing hat kneels in the middle of a large field.
Much has changed since wheat took hold as Kansas’ go-to crop in the 19th century. But good soil health remains the foundation of farming. Last summer, Jamie Funke got a firsthand demonstration of one of the benefits of his no-till practices: A consultant’s soil probe showed his ground was 40 degrees cooler than a nearby, conventionally tilled field. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Jamie and Chris Funke decided to flee the urban life and move to the farm in 1990. They have a quarter-section of land in Reno County that belonged to his grandfather and father and another quarter-section that was the homeplace where she grew up, near the Reno County town of Partridge.

They are teachers by profession and were working in Wichita when the lure of raising their children, then 6 and 3, in a rural environment proved irresistible. 

“Chris grew up on the farm so she knew something about farming. She knew how to drive a tractor and operate machinery,” Jamie says. “But for me it was a learning experience, figuring out how to farm while working around a teaching job.”

Jamie and Chris started farming the way her parents and his dad had done it – mostly tilled, continuous wheat because that’s what got the most favorable government subsidies. It freed up time for him to teach students in a building trades vocational program in McPherson. And it allowed Chris to continue a teaching career as gifted facilitator for the Reno County Education Cooperative.

Chris’s sister and her husband, Lisa and Jim French, farm nearby. They are active in the Cheney Lake Watershed conservation group, where Lisa served as project coordinator until she retired in the fall of 2022. Like all members of the group, they converted their entire farming operation to no-till. They continue to experiment with soil health practices, adding cover crops and grazing cattle on them. They too are enrolled in the General Mills project.

“They got us into the regenerative agriculture mode,” Jamie says. “I have zero acres under irrigation, so in droughts like we’ve seen in 2022 and 2023, I’m getting by with crop insurance. But that help is limited. The amount of insurance is based on the 10-year average of harvests. When you get a couple or three years of zero, it really cuts into that.” 

In April of 2023, he was watching a wheat crop struggle and trying to coax his beds of iris flowers into blooming in time for a flower show on April 13.

“The flowers are behind because of the cold spring,” he says. 

Besides the flowers, he says, they are getting into growing vegetables, and he’s working on building cabinets for their greenhouses. 

Jamie says his General Mills project acres yielded about 25 bushels to the acre in 2022 – right at the township average. He expects a better harvest in 2023 after getting rain in early April.

“In ideal conditions, this township brings in 70- to 75-bushel wheat,” he says. “Last year, nobody had that kind of wheat. Last year would have been a good year to have irrigation on wheat acres. Getting 60 to 70 bushels with the price around $12 a bushel would be a windfall, even with the cost of pumping water.”

He knows his land would benefit from adding cattle to graze cover crops, but he lacks the infrastructure – fences and water sources – to do that and building it would be expensive.

“If I do decide to add cattle, I’ll probably just lease my cover crop farms to somebody who needs forage,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll get into owning cattle.”

Even without cattle, he says he is reaping significant soil benefits from the practices he has added. When his Understanding Ag consultant used a soil probe to measure soil temperatures in the hot July of 2022, his soil, covered by growing crops, was 40 degrees cooler than a nearby conventionally tilled field. He knows that means a lot less evaporation.

He says he expected to make less profit from the farm with the conversion but is committed to leaving the land in better shape than when he started.

“Both Chris and I have retirement pay from our teaching careers,” he says. “We don’t have to make a living from the farm. I don’t want to lose any money, but I can afford to break even or a little bit better and still keep going.”

He understands why some of his conventional farming neighbors are reluctant to try making a change.

“If it’s your entire livelihood, harvesting those bushels is everything,” he says. “However, I think that over time, they will come to understand that getting more bushels equals spending more money on inputs and more money on fuel.”

He’s finding that he just might have underestimated the profit potential of changing practices. He has saved money on inputs, using legumes in his cover crop mix to add enough nitrogen that he could reduce his synthetic fertilizer application by half.

“The money I save on fertilizer helps the bottom line, especially in a year when prices have shot up. That’s what this program is about in a nutshell – improving the bottom line while improving the soil. It’s about profit per acre more than bushels per acre. If I’m making more money, I don’t care if I’m harvesting fewer bushels.”

  • Scruffy bearded older man in glasses and floppy hat smiles while speaking.
  • Close-up photo of muddy hand holding a worm.

Last year, he also got a surprise in the form of a nice-sized check for the pounds of carbon that was sequestered after converting to regenerative agriculture.

“The better we get at measuring the amount of sequestration, the more that check will be an incentive for more farmers to farm this way,” he says. 

He lauds the expertise of the coaches that come with participation in the General Mills project.

“Their coaches are just awesome,” he says. “They have taught me so much about which cover crops bring the most benefit to the subsequent grain crop and how to crimp cover crop residue to provide mulch that covers the ground and helps conserve moisture.”

Funke is concerned that climate change is going to bring more of what he has seen lately: long stretches of high heat and low water interspaced with big rain events. That lends additional urgency to adopting regenerative practices. 

“If you look back, what’s happening is a trend that goes back several years,” he says. “It’s going to become more and more important to be able to capture and hold the water when the rains do come. The way to do that is to have a soil structure that can absorb and hold that heavy rain. And the way to get that structure is to keep growing root systems in the ground all the time.”

For 2023, he’s sticking to the advice his Understanding Ag consultant gave him – stick with the rotation. That means planting cover crops along with soybeans, milo and wheat this year. 

“So far, sticking to the program seems to be mostly working,” he says. “And we’re beginning to see that bushels per acre is not nearly as important at the end of the day as profits per acre. And this program seems to be giving us better profits per acre.”

Magazine cover featuring an illustration of several people trying to tie a large quarter—with the words "e pluribus unum" inscribed on it—back together

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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