Ray Gaesser of Adams County is well known as a farm conservation leader and innovator. For he and his son, Chris, conservation is woven completely into their operation.

Buffer strips, waterways, terraces — that was decades ago. Gaesser has used no-till since he began farming and on 100% of his crop acres since 1991. He planted his first cover crop in 2010 and now uses the practice on about half of his ground, sowing it directly behind the combine.

He harvests seed rye in August, followed by a cover crop planted immediately after and then corn planted into it in the spring. Rye seed not planted is marketed.

Using today’s technology, he can identify what patches of each field are productive and which aren’t. Those that aren’t are considered for permanent prairie. 

“Much of ag these days is site specific,” says Gaesser. “Regenerative ag is about the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship — Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time and Right Place. In many ways, it’s relearning practices we used in the past, along with using all of the available technology. That’s Smart Agriculture.”

Gaesser Farms has participated in various research projects over the years, some through groups like the Iowa Soybean Association, of which Gaesser is past president, and the Soil Health Partnership. Others were field trials for commercial products. 

Research trials

One project showed him he was applying 20% to 25% more nitrogen than was needed. Another involved growing yellow peas. 

Currently underway is a 15-acre cover crop trial through Pioneer that will study cover crop varieties, timing and practices. 

Also this year, he will explore partnering with neighbors to graze cover crops and will research an additional summer harvest crop, continuing structural improvements and problem area identification.

“We have such a diverse landscape in this state, and different practices work on different farms,” he continues. “You have to think in terms of a holistic approach — how you grow things and where you grow them. It’s about building and protecting soil health.”

Gaesser doesn’t raise livestock, but is glad to source manure for fertilizer from local livestock farmers, particularly poultry producers. 

“Different people are good at different things,” he says. “I’m good at growing crops. Others are good at raising livestock. We each do what we do, and we work together.”

Family tradition

“When my wife, Elaine, and I started farming 42 years ago, we made the commitment to protect the soil and do the best job we could to care for the land,” says Gaesser. “That’s still the family farming model. We work to be resilient and profitable like every farm and to pass it on in better condition than we found it.”

Gaesser Farms is a family affair. Chris’ wife, Shannon, runs the office, and Ray’s daughter, Jennifer, co-farms 160 acres with Chris. Chris returned to the farm in 2009 after receiving his agronomy degree from Iowa State University and working for Pioneer for a year. An annual buy-in plan has him now half owner of Gaesser Farms.

“I’m glad I was able to offer him the opportunity to pay his way in and get a first hand look at the financial realities,” says Ray. “A farm has to be profitable. You can be efficient and be good stewards.”

Working off the farm

Gaesser is a central figure in state and national ag circles. He is a leader in both the Iowa and American Soybean Associations and is involved in the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance. He was named a Master Farmer in 2012 and has received the Adams County Conservation Award. 

Gaesser suggests those wanting to try conservation or production practices like cover crops or no-till should start small and give it more than one year. He says after year five of cover crops, they began to see significant measurable results. “Make up your mind if it’s needed for the soil, and put strong effort into it. You’ll find a way to make it work,” he says. 

“Farmers are resilient and ad­­aptable,” he continues. “That’s how we’ve farmed for centuries. And when we work to improve soil health, water drainage and the environment, it benefits us all.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer in Greenfield.