When the Wyandot County Soil and Water Conservation District board of supervisors chose Don Wilson for Conservation Farmer of the Year this past spring, SWCD Office Manager Bill Clinger asked Wilson’s wife, Jenny, to keep it a secret. His surprise was unveiled the evening of Aug. 23 during the district’s annual banquet.
Wilson said he likes to attend the banquet yearly, so his wife had no trouble getting tickets and telling Don they would be attending. The surprise could be seen on Don’s face, which beamed red with his wife beside him, when his name was announced as Conservation Farmer of the Year.
“We looked at what Don’s done over the last four or five years and it was pretty obvious that he deserved the award this year,” Clinger said. “One thing I like about Don is he came up to me after (getting the award) and said, ‘I didn’t do this to get an award.’ … (Board members) like people who are just doing (conservation farming) because it’s the right thing to do.”
Wilson said he would not have been where he is today if it was not for his wife.
“There (are) times … in the mornings when she’s getting ready for work and I tell her that I need to move stuff to the field,” Don said. “She sacrifices herself to help me … so I’ve got stuff to do all day. … Behind every successful man, there’s a good woman. … It takes two to make it nice.”
Wilson has worked to improve his Pitt Township farm since the Wilsons moved there in 2008, including improving on many conservation practices passed down from his grandfather. The farm features about 450 acres, plus a wooded area. The farm is a family operation, he said, adding his 17-year-old daughter, Emma, a student at Upper Sandusky High School, also helps on the farm.
A native of Knox County, Wilson decided during a dry year to attend a cornhuskers event in Upper Sandusky, where he met Jenny (Racheter) Wilson, who would become his wife.
“It was really dry at home and we had all the crops done by the end of September,” Don said. “They had cornhuskers up here and I always wanted to go to a hand cornhusking contest. At home, you didn’t dare take a Saturday off because that was the busiest day. Sunday was a little bit of a (relaxing) day.”
Don told his dad he would be taking off Sunday to attend a Cornhuskers Festival at the Wyandot County Fairgrounds in Upper Sandusky.
“So I came up and ran into her,” he said. “To me, stuff like (the Cornhuskers Festival) is good because once it leaves — I mean, it’s already left — it ain’t never coming back. I think they had people come from Iowa and Kansas.”
Clinger said the Cornhuskers Festival, which no longer takes place in the county, was a national event that drew crowds from around the nation, especially in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I remember when we heard that Jenny was getting married, they said, ‘Well, it was this guy she met at the cornhusking festival,’” Clinger said.
Clinger said conservation farming was a good fit for Wilson when he moved from the eastern portion of the state, with its hilly landscape.
“One neat thing I’ve seen about Don is when he moved to the area, even though he was new to the area, he wasn’t new to conservation,” Clinger said. “They’d been practicing that over in eastern Ohio for quite a while.”
Wilson said his grandfather was on the board of supervisors for a soil and water conservation district in West Virginia.
“They say sometimes stuff skips a generation. … I think I probably got more from my grandfather than I did from dad,” Wilson said. “Grand-pap … I don’t know how far he went, but he was one that got them started making reclaimed strip mines down there. … And way back then, he started doing contour farming on his farm and then when the soil conservation (district began the practice), dad said they only adjusted (Wilson’s grandfather’s) strips a few feet one way or the other.”
Contour farming is used on sloping hillsides, Clinger said.
“When you’ve got a fairly sloping hillside, you can lose a lot of soil off of that when it rains,” he said. “So what they do, they kind of farm across the grain rather than going down slopes.”
The perpendicular rows of crops also can help intercept water flowing downhill, he added.
Wilson said Knox County has been considered the no-till capitol of the world.
“It’s interesting, too, because really where (Wilson) grew up was one of the earlier areas that adopted some (conservation) practices, like no-till planting,” Clinger said. “I remember when I was a kid, there would be folks from Knox County who would come to Marion and give a talk on how to do no-till planting because we’re relatively flat over here, but they’re rolling over there. They were some of the early adoptors.”
Along with contour farming, Wilson’s farm incorporates cover crops and grassed waterways. Wilson has added or improved more than 4,000 feet of grassed waterways in the last few years. He has five grassed waterways total.
Wilson also suggested tile replacement as a conservation practice so water has a place to soak into the ground.
“I try to grow some rye cover crop,” he said. “I do think that’s a very good practice, if it works in the person’s rotation.”
Clinger said cover crops are “up and coming” now as a conservation farming practice.
“The most vulnerable time for any soil is when it doesn’t have any vegetation on it,” he said. “Even if we have crop residue … that helps a little bit, but there’s nothing better than green crop on the ground to preserve the soil.
“(Experts) tell us it takes 500 years to make an inch of soil,” Clinger added. “If you lose an inch of soil off your field, that’s not going to come back very (quickly); so, different things like crop rotation, cover crops, grassed waterways, those are all things to help keep the soil in place.”
Wyandot County SWCD works in collaboration with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency to promote conservation farming through the Conservation Reserve Program.
“Through CRP, they help (farmers) with some of the cost with establishing a waterway,” Clinger said.
Wilson praised the offices for being flexible when working with individual farmers, something he said is not done in every county.
“Thirty (or) 40 years ago, when there were a lot of 80-acre farms, there would be livestock. They had pasture fences, maybe a cornfield here and a beanfield there,” Wilson said. “Still, if you had a fence between it, there could be 5 or 6 feet there that’s grown up with grass. Even though it’s washing across the cornfield, it’s going to stay right there instead of just going in a hole. When it starts raining, you get a 2-inch rain and you got a foot of water heading down through there, it just takes tons and tons of soil away.”
Clinger said some conservation practices Wilson takes part in “are not obvious to the average person driving down the road.”
“In order to help the soil stay in place, it’s not just cover crops and waterways,” Clinger said. “(There are) things you can do for the soil itself that makes it stronger structurally. Like (Wilson) mentioned, he raises some hay. Hay really helps the soil out. It has deep roots. It forms more stable soil particles.
“One of the reasons we promote no-till or conservation tillage is because if you work the ground a lot and you don’t have hay or other crops like that in it, over time that soil loses it’s organic matter,” Clinger added. “So Don uses things like manure (and) he’s got a rotation that helps build up that organic matter because a soil that has more organic matter is less likely to wash away.”
Wilson said there are many indicators that tell him when the soil is healthy.
“I liked to go out in the evenings in the summertime (when) you get a nice, warm rain … and the fishing worms will be on top,” Wilson said. “And you walk slowly out there and you can just jump a little bit and it just sounds like a sponge.
“I had a particular field that … had been in hay for three years,” Wilson added. “You don’t realize it, but I was driving down the road one morning after a rain … and the amount of night crawlers on the road beside the field was many times more than any place else on the road. It just brings that life right back to the soil.”
Clinger also thanked the Wilsons for hosting the annual seventh-grade tour, which will be held for the fourth year at their farm in October for seventh-grade students in the county. Along with showing the students his farming practices, Don said he has about 20 active beehives. His local honey can be found at the farmers’ markets at the Wyandot County Fairgrounds.
By ALISSA PAOLELLA