Meet a WI Corn Farmer: Rick Gehrke

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We want to thank the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association for sponsoring this meet a farmer Q & A post!

Rick Gehrke and family; WI Corn FarmerMeet Rick Gehrke, a WI corn farmer from Omro. With fall harvest taking place all over Wisconsin right now, we caught up with Rick to learn more about his farm, family, and what they’re doing to protect something we all have in common: our water.

 Tell us about your farm and your family. 

Rick: I farm near Omro with my wife and two kids. We grow corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa (hay that’s used for animal feed). Our family farm started with my grandfather in 1934, so I’m the fourth generation of Gehrkes to live and farm here.

Most of the corn I grow stays pretty local. Some of it goes to a local beef farmer to feed his animals, some goes to nearby ethanol production, and some goes to a local co-op where it’ll get sold for any number of uses.

What’s your favorite farming or fall tradition? 

Rick: I would say that fall is very rewarding because you can see what mother nature has blessed you with for weather and how your hard work pays off at harvest. Working beside my dad every day of fall harvest are memories that stay with me and hopefully, I’ll pass those same memories down to the next generation.

I (Amanda) grew up in Milwaukee, therefore, I don’t know a lot about farming.  So I’m hoping you can help me understand the process better. Can you share how you utilize fertilizers and take care to protect Wisconsin’s waters?

Rick: Well first off I’m a big fan of what makes Wisconsin so great and that’s all our natural water resources. Especially in our area, the Fox River is very close to the farm and our largest inland lake is nearby, so I care about how my farming choices affect my neighbors and our resources. That’s definitely true for how we use fertilizers.

To back up a bit, it’s helpful to understand why we need fertilizer. Our soils can produce nutrients to a point, but if we just keep taking those nutrients out when we harvest our crops without replenishing them, we can do long-term damage to the soil, which is our number one asset in farming.

So farmers will use fertilizer to help our crops grow throughout the year. Fertilizers can come from a natural source, like cattle manure. While it’s important that we use fertilizer, we definitely want to be as efficient as possible when we use it. It’s like filling up your gas tank: you can’t drive without fuel, but you’re also not going to keep filling the tank to the point that it’s overflowing; it’s a waste of money and of that resource. The same goes for our fertilizer use. Fortunately, technology has helped us become incredibly precise when it comes to applying fertilizer.

On our farm, we use weather stations to predict the correct timing for applying fertilizer. We also use GPS technology when we apply them, so we’re only treating the areas of a field that we know need the extra support.

This use of precision agriculture ensures we only apply what we need. And so when we experience a heavy rainfall, we can be confident that the “just right” amount of fertilizer we applied is going to stay in the field and out of our waterways.

What are you doing to farm sustainably? 

Rick: Precise fertilizer use and how we manage nutrients is certainly one sustainability aspect on our farm. But we’re also implementing other practices to farm more sustainably:

  • Cover crops: This is a crop that gets planted after our fall harvest. It serves as a “blanket” for the soil over winter months to reduce wind and water erosion, but it’s also a crop that doesn’t get harvested, so it holds nutrients in place that’ll be important for the next growing season.
  • No-till: This is a practice that essentially leaves the ground untouched between harvesting in the fall and planting in the spring. We won’t go back into the fields to turn over the soil for the next season – a common practice for previous generations of farmers. What we’ve learned is that by leaving those stalks in the field from the previous harvest, we can build organic matter in the soil that’s important for plant growth, and also protect the soil over the winter months from wind and water erosion, keeping all our water cleaner.
  • Buffer strips and grassy waterways: These are field edges that are planted with grasses and other vegetation. Their sole purpose is to “catch” sediment carried by water during rainfall events, keeping it in our fields and out of our waterways.

Can you tell us about the technology you use on the farm?

Rick: The technology we’re able to use on-farm is pretty amazing. Just two generations ago, farmers would have to pick out a tree on the other end of a field, and that was your straight line to follow when you were planting. Whereas today, you can hit a button and the tractor will steer itself. But technology is even at play in the types of seed we choose and the genetic traits that will work best on an individual farm. That’s one thing today’s farmers need to do, is to continually keep learning and understanding how best to use technology to grow a healthy, sustainable crop.

What’s one thing you get asked that always surprises you?

Rick: It’s not so much a question I get asked but more so the misconception I think people have of farmers. We’re not the American Gothic farmer, carrying a pitchfork and wearing overalls (though there are times when both may come in handy). You’re more likely to see us holding an iPad or tracking data in an app on our smartphone. WI corn farmers are well-educated and work to stay well-informed; we must in order to make it in farming today. And with that, we’re aiming to be very good stewards of our land, the best that we can be.

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