Four Decades of No-Till is Paying Off for Vermilion County Farmer Jean Stewart
“A good farmer is a steward of the soil,” shares Jean Stewart, a Midwest corn and soybean farmer and a finalist for the 2023 Illinois Leopold Conservation Award, an award program that recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by agricultural landowners. Stewart has been farming for 57 years, and when asked, he says, “it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.” Today, he lives just down the road from the home where he grew up in northern Vermilion County and grows corn, soybeans, and alfalfa on 800 acres. Stewart has been a no-till farmer since 1986 and is an early adopter of cover crops. Currently, he plants his corn crop with a 1993 planter by “planting green” into a mix of annual rye, radishes, and oats, and following corn, he flies on cereal rye.
“If there’s no ROI, I’m not spending my money,” shares Stewart when asked how he decides to begin using a new practice. “When I’m trying something new, I’m not a real innovator,” he explains, adding that he always tries a side-by-side comparison of a new practice before expanding it to his whole farm. Stewart is skeptical of expensive new technologies that can’t guarantee a payback, and he isn’t interested in expanding new practices across his farm unless he’s seen the proven value on smaller acreage.
In 1981, Stewart attended a Soil Conservation Seminar which offered a program to furnish a farmer’s planter with no-till equipment if they planted 25 acres of no-till on their farm. Stewart took the opportunity to try a new no-till eight-row planter, and compared to his conventionally tilled fields, the harvest results were the same. The following year, Stewart bought a 12-row no-till planter and used it to plant half of his corn acres. Again, the yields were just as good as his conventionally tilled fields. “It proved to me that I could grow a good crop without tillage,” says Stewart. “We did that for a couple years, and then I sold all the tillage equipment.”
Stewart understands that farmers are hesitant to change their system to no-till. “Farmers are resilient, but change makes people uncomfortable,” Stewart acknowledges. “I’ve been no-tilling for 37 years, and I would recommend it to anyone with patience. You can make it work.”
Stewart’s success on the farm can be attributed to a combination of his own curiosity and his willingness to take opportunities as they arise. He is not a risk-taker by nature. Instead, he takes it into his own hands to prove the value of each new management change or piece of technology on his farm. In many cases, like his initial experience with no-till, Stewart looks to those around him for opportunities to learn, try new things, and improve the productivity of his farm.
When attending a field day hosted by the Vermilion Soil and Water Conservation District, Stewart happened to sit next to Dan Schaefer, Director of Nutrient Stewardship for the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association. Over the lunch break, Stewart asked Schaefer how to know the “right” nitrogen application rate for a given farm, and Schaefer asked if he would be interested in doing some side-by-side field trials.
At the time, Stewart was applying 200 pounds of side-dress nitrogen. He began his trials with Schaefer by applying 160 pounds of nitrogen on 80 acres and 95 pounds of nitrogen on 140 acres. “We only noticed a two-bushel difference,” Stewart reports. Stewart continued working with Schaefer to host trials on his farm for seven years, contributing to the Illinois data set that helped determine the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN) rate. MRTN is the nitrogen application rate that results in the maximum per acre profit (net return), allowing farmers to feel confident that they are getting the most economic value from their nitrogen program. Stewart eventually landed on an application rate of 130 pounds of nitrogen ahead of corn, about 60 to 80 pounds less than the average farmer in Illinois.
“I think we have to be very aware of nitrogen rates because if we don’t take care of it, then the government will decide for us,” cautions Stewart. Stewart utilizes the “N-Watch” program with Illini FS to take soil samples at a depth of two feet to check nitrogen levels, and these tests help him confirm his application rates. “I’m using scientific methods to justify my rates,” shares Stewart. “Farmers are much better taking care of that stuff than leaving it to the government.”
I’ve been no-tilling for 37 years, and I would recommend it to anyone with patience. You can make it work.
In addition to the N-Watch program, Stewart does grid soil sampling every four years to test the nutrient availability, organic matter content, and overall fertility of his soils, which he says have all been improving since he started no-tilling. Stewart emphasized the benefits of soil testing, suggesting that farmers should see for themselves how their practices impact the soil in their fields. “I can go and tell other farmers that they can do cover crops and no-till, but they aren’t going to believe it on my word,” Stewart acknowledges. “They might try it because I said it was effective, but they aren’t going to start changing their whole operation because of something I say.”
“I was the same way,” Stewart admits. “I needed to prove it to myself, and I found that I was wasting money by tilling and overapplying fertilizer. Farmers need to do the soil tests on their own farms and see it for themselves.” Although Stewart doesn’t claim to be a “real innovator,” his decades of leadership in no-till farmer practices and responsible nutrient management have paved the way for other farmers in east central Illinois to improve their farms’ productivity, sustainability, and profitability.
“I’m not saying it has been easy,” reflects Stewart. “But it has been very rewarding. All I ever wanted to do was farm, and I feel very blessed to have done this job for 57 years.”