Ep. 44: Making Meaningful Improvements to Soil Health with Precision Ag
Updated: Jan 25
For Joe Bassett, soil health is more than just a buzzword. We have discussed agronomic system approaches to improving soil health and we have talked about the importance of precision ag, specifically data collection and analytics to measure sustainable efforts. Today on the show we have our first conversation about the mechanics behind making these things happen.
What started as Dawn Biologic and transitioned to Underground Agriculture, a company designed to speak to those wanting to make real improvements to the health of their soil. Underground Ag has several pieces of equipment designed to improve performance and reduce the risk of things going wrong in what is likely going to be rougher environments due to reduced or zero tillage and the addition of cover crops.
“Planting soybeans in a cereal rye cover crop, we can have really good results with this, essentially eliminate herbicide. You can use a little bit of herbicide. Going full organic is a lot harder, but you can make a very low-cost herbicide program,” stated Joe. “But, you're planting beans in a rolled down mat of cereal rye that's like six inches thick, right? It's a mechanical problem. And yet, you want to plant that bean an inch and a half or less. I mean, that's just like a physics problem.”
When it comes to making healthier soils Joe talked of the multiple conversations that are happening about this topic. There is an opportunity to bring the conversations happening between industry thought leaders and mainstream Midwestern farmers. Joe believes that by adding nuance into the conversation will help. This can help tackle the things that limit adoption by discussing the mechanics behind the problems.
“My personal belief is that the reason why conventional tillage works is because it provides an environment in which it makes it easy to have a good outcome in the early growth stage of the seed and the plant. You know, that's what conventional tillage does, but that's a byproduct of machine design,” Joe started. “So, you can look at things the other way… you don't need the most complex stuff. You just need to have the right ideas and focus on fundamentals. You can get good depth control, good seed to soil contact without necessarily a lot of technology.”
When it comes to adoption of regenerative practices, today the number of growers aggressively changing their operation is relatively small. You may be one of the only growers in your area doing these different things. Because of that, your network and a trusted advisor is also key to driving adoption.
“It's hard to completely change,” shared Joe. “There's a lot of risk associated with it, because you have a lot of risk in terms of the stuff you need in order to set up a farm that way… You have a lot of generational differences within a farm within different age, demographics, and you have different realities in different climates where some things are going to be vastly harder in some climates than other areas.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the mechanics of regenerative agriculture, tune into our full episodes here. From there, you might be interested in learning more about the agronomics and principles behind those efforts. We discussed that in Episode 29 with Jason Mauck.
Comment below with your thoughts on regenerative agriculture. To learn more about the roller crimper technology discussed in this episode please visit www.undergroundagriculture.com
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail – specifically in ag tech – prior to hosting the Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog, Heart and Soil, where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Joe Bassett, CEO of Dawn Equipment, is a physicist and mechanical designer with over 50 patents. He, his wife Rachael and daughter Mimi live in Sycamore, IL and Milwaukee WI.
Welcome to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast, where we plant seeds of innovation to inspire informed decisions about precision technology and its impact for growers like you. We explore precision ag tools and technology from the soil to the sky, with your host, Morgan Seger.
Morgan Seger (00:22):
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast from precisionagreviews.com. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. And in each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas.
Morgan Seger (00:34):
And today on the show, I am joined by Joe Bassett, the CEO of Dawn Equipment and Underground Agriculture. Dawn is an equipment manufacturer that started as a company that created an attachment for ridge-till and has moved on to strip-till and other innovative equipment adaptations that growers can use.
Morgan Seger (00:54):
Recently, Joe started a company called Underground Agriculture and he walks us through why that company was created and the impact that they are working to have. So while we talk a lot about regenerative agriculture practices, I think this is going to be an interesting conversation for anyone who's on the fence about what that next step should be for their farm.
Morgan Seger (01:14):
So, here's my conversation with Joe at Dawn.
Morgan Seger (01:17):
So today on Precision Points, I'm joined by Joe Bassett, the CEO of Dawn Equipment and Underground Agriculture. Joe, welcome to the show.
Joe Bassett (01:26):
Hey, thanks for having me.
Morgan Seger (01:28):
So, Joe at Dawn on Twitter, which is where I find most of my interesting guests to have on the podcast. But for you, I actually got your name from a group of friends that I started my career in ag tech with. So, a while back, I had asked them who is doing the most interesting work in ag tech right now, and your name rose to the top. Specifically, they mentioned the work you're doing with Underground Ag.
Morgan Seger (01:51):
So, I was wondering if you could kind of kick us off today, and just describe the work you're doing with Underground Agriculture, and maybe why you decided to bring this brand alongside the work you're doing at Dawn.
Joe Bassett (02:03):
That's actually a really complex subject. So, Underground Agriculture actually grew out of an earlier experiment we did call Dawn Biologic where we were attempting to speak to farmers who were embracing soil health and cover crops, but speak to them with a different brand identity, because we recognize that those customers tended to fit a different demographic than a lot of our other customers where, you know, as the Dawn brand strategy is to become more digitized, more control, more automation, the Underground Agriculture brand is sort of about simplicity and low cost, and basically, any solution that a client needs to embrace regenerative farming, we're going to try and make those solutions.
Joe Bassett (03:00):
But in practice, it's becoming a little bit convoluted. We're probably going to unwind... See, technically, Underground Agriculture is actually its own corporate entity. And there were a number of reasons that that happened that way, which I'm not really at liberty to go into here, but the long story short is that the need to separate those two entities into different companies is sort of dwindling, and I'm going to be unwinding that and bringing the two brands back under the Dawn corporate umbrella. But we are still going to maintain two separate brands, because I do think that farmers that are embracing soil health and embracing cover crops, it's really a small group.
Joe Bassett (03:46):
And as much as you, in the Twitter echo chamber here about cover crops and regenerative agriculture and so and so forth and carbon credits, blah, blah, blah, that's just an echo chamber. And in the real world, there's not that many people that are truly adopting these practices and truly making them work on their farms. And they are rebels. They are moving against the grain. They are this 5% at the tail end of the bell curve that are not the status quo, and they're farmers who are deliberately choosing to go against the status quo.
Joe Bassett (04:20):
And so, I thought it would be fun and interesting to actually speak to them with a brand identity that acknowledges that.
Morgan Seger (04:27):
Yeah. At the 2021 Stock Cropper Day, you talked a little bit about the disconnect between the sustainability efforts and things that we talk about for large scale farming, and then, the work that needs to actually get done. How do you think growers can bridge that gap, and how does your work impact those growers on that tail curve that are trying to, I guess, move the mark?
Joe Bassett (04:52):
I don't think it's the growers' job to bridge the gap. I think the people that need to be bridging the gap are the sort of well intentioned thought leaders in the sort of sustainability, corporate sustainability, climate-centered agriculture, carbon reduction. There's a lot of nonprofit sort of intelligentsia that hovers around own soil health, carbon sequestration, sustainable agriculture that are having a conversation with each other, and that conversation is completely omitting mainstream Midwestern farmers.
Joe Bassett (05:36):
So, the fact that mainstream Midwestern farmers are not in on this conversation, or that they're having a completely separate conversation, it's not their job to somehow to... The obligation is more for the people that ostensibly have in their brochures that their objective is to promote healthy soil, promote climate-centered agriculture and so on and so forth, the onus is on them to have a conversation with real farmers about what's going to actually make them adopt changing practices.
Joe Bassett (06:13):
Not just be like, okay, well, hey, no till's better. And we think no-till will be more profitable. So, why isn't anybody no-tilling? I mean, it's not very nuanced, it's not a very deep conversation, and you're totally missing the real things that will help farmers adopt practices. And that's my entire objective is like, okay, let's think about this mechanically. All right. You've got a thick mad of cover crop, and you want to grow a crop in it, and you don't want to like lose yield because, okay, there's maybe some marginal little spread that you're going to get from some carbon program or some other program that's going to pay you 25 or $35 an hour an acre or something like that. Okay. But that's not really enough. Right? So, how do we actually accomplish these practices mechanically?
Joe Bassett (07:05):
Like at some point with farming, it can't just be like digitization and like satellite imagery, somebody has to do something on the soil, and make it work. Like how do we do that, but also, have successful yield outcomes at the same time. And those are largely mechanical problems. And that's the place where we want to position ourselves is how do we solve the issues of getting the crop planted well, controlling the cover crop in a way that allows you to have success, and to a certain degree, in the soybeans, that's really doable.
Joe Bassett (07:44):
And we've sort of moved on to even more sort of out there regenerative practices. But it's hard to completely change. There's a lot of risk associated with it, because you have a lot of risk in terms of the stuff you need in order to set up to farm that way when you're not totally sold on it. You have a lot of generational differences within a farm within different age, demographics, and you have different realities in different climates where some things are going to be vastly harder in some climates than other areas.
Joe Bassett (08:16):
I mean, it's a lot easier to sell some of these cover crop programs. The further south you go, you just have a longer growing season. That doesn't mean you can't make things work in the far northern corn belt, but it just takes more skill.
Morgan Seger (08:31):
I'm interested in the things you're talking about, especially mechanically, because on this podcast, we've talked about soil health, sustainability, all of that stuff a lot, but from an ag tech perspective, it's been primarily around data collection and data analytics, and not a lot of the like execution on the farm. So, how are you kind of moving from just the data of what we are currently doing to actually helping growers execute this in a new way?
Joe Bassett (09:00):
First of all, farms are businesses, and they have to make financially-driven decisions, and the vast majority of them do make primarily financially-driven decisions. Although a lot of them do have a lot of other things that they have conviction about other than just maximizing profit, just like in any business. You can choose to run it in a few different ways, but I mean, the reality is you have to solve that problem. If you're trying to get farmers to adopt a new practice, my personal opinion is that it has to become vastly more profitable, so that it creates that gravitational shift to force them to do that.
Joe Bassett (09:37):
I mean, the question of how exactly it becomes more profitable is can happen in a few ways. You can have like what they have done on the east coast in like Maryland and the Carolinas where they pay farmers $75 an acre to embrace a certain set of practices. And you pay a guy $75 an acre, you're going to definitely get some adoption. But is that the right way to do it? Is that the right way to truly create systemic change? I personally don't believe so.
Joe Bassett (10:11):
You know, when people talk about the data, I mean, there is a huge gap in terms of the measurement of soil health. I mean, I think that there's some really good solutions out there, especially when you just put a base level of automation on top of it, there's solutions out there that measure on a fairly granular level carbon dioxide emissions using remote sensing, but... okay. Yeah. There's data. How do we compensate farmers for improving soil health and/or sequestering carbon if we aren't truly measuring it in a way, right? So, that has to be done.
Joe Bassett (10:52):
Right now, our farmers, our customers, I would say the vast majority of them that are buying our products, our roller crimping products, our interseeding products, other products for cover crops and regenerative agriculture, only a minority of them are getting any type of money, whether it be from carbon credit trading, whether it be from EQIP, whether it be from a variety of other programs, that would be the minority. The vast majority of them are making this choice because they truly believe in the performance of healthy soil, and that is going to be a long-term profitable strategy for them.
Joe Bassett (11:32):
But there's a lot of places that it goes totally wrong, too. It is not just because of how difficult it is. People go around to these conferences, and now, like soil health conferences have become almost a sort of industry in and of themselves. And you get pumped up in your little soil health boiler room, then, you go back to your farm and you're like, "Well, okay, well, what do I do now?" Okay. So, the problem is that, to truly execute with success, requires a number of things.
Joe Bassett (12:10):
First of all, it requires getting set up right. Okay. And you're going to need to buy some stuff that's expensive. And some farms don't actually even have the scale to make the purchases in equipment and technology that they need. Okay. So there's a problem. How do you make technology and/or products available to farms that don't actually have the scale in acres that it takes to support making an expense of purchases like that? Okay. So, that's part one.
Joe Bassett (12:36):
Like for instance, planting soybeans in a cereal rye cover crop, we can have really good results with this, essentially eliminate herbicide. You can use a little bit of herbicide. Going full organic is a lot harder, but you can essentially eliminate... You can make a very low-cost herbicide program. But you're planting beans in a roll down mat of cereal rye that's like six inches thick, right? It's a mechanical problem. And yet, you want to plant that bean an inch and a half or less. I mean, that's just like a physics problem.
Joe Bassett (13:08):
Okay. So, how do we make that happen? You know, like we even have these active depth control products for the planters now, and there's closing wheel products that actually automatically control themselves, because... See, people throw the baby out with the bath water when they try and embrace cover crops, so like, okay, well, we got the cover crop here. So now, like the fairies have come in and I don't need to worry about seed to soil contact. I don't need to worry about good depth control, all of the fundamentals.
Joe Bassett (13:36):
My personal belief is that the reason why conventional tillage works is because it provides an environment in which it makes it easy to have a good outcome in the early growth stage of the seed and the plant. You know, that's what conventional tillage does, but that's a byproduct of machine design. So, you can look at things the other way. But anyway, so there's like... To really, really make a... And you don't need the most complex stuff. You just need to have the right ideas and focus on fundamentals. You can get good depth control, good seed to soil contact without necessarily a lot of technology.
Joe Bassett (14:12):
The other point is you need somebody with some experience to advise you. You almost need support, right? And the internet makes that easier. Like when you're the only farmer out there in your vicinity, there's a lot of... You know, it's not a surprise. I mean, everybody's sitting around waiting for everybody else to fail. I mean, that's the way the entire world works. I mean, people look at celebrity magazines, and they love it when celebrities like crash and burn. Because everybody loves a dumpster fire. I mean, it's no different, where it's oh he didn't step outside the status quo. Now, we're going to... So, there needs to be advice. There needs to be an aspect of advice and support.
Joe Bassett (14:57):
cAnd then, there needs to be a market that values products in a certain way, too, right? Some consumers are obviously willing to pay more for products that are raised in a certain way, or grown in a certain way. And if you specifically limit the focus towards regenerative agriculture and outcomes, by far, the biggest problem is the low cost measurement of soil carbon and/or soil health. You know, I'm not Lance Gunderson or Russell Hedrick that's going to get amped over soil sampling. I got to pick a lane and just stay in the lane, and I already let my lane get too wide sometimes.
Morgan Seger (15:40):
Yeah, a little wide.
Joe Bassett (15:40):
Morgan Seger (15:42):
Well, I appreciate these sets. So, my husband and I farm, and we've been throwing around these ideas, but to us, it always felt consumer-driven, and that we would have to create a market, or become a part of a market, find the market. We had Jason Mauck on the podcast earlier this summer, and that was the first time that someone explained it in a way like it just helps us grow better. Like having better soil health isn't just consumer driven, or about the market, it's about also being able to create more yield because of the environment we're creating in the soil.
Morgan Seger (16:19):
And it's like, I don't know why I didn't connect those dots. I think I was making it more complicated than it needed to be. So, it's-
Joe Bassett (16:26):
Soil health and fertilizer input costs are inversely proportional. Where are you located?
Morgan Seger (16:32):
We are in western Ohio.
Joe Bassett (16:35):
Morgan Seger (16:36):
Joe Bassett (16:36):
North or south?
Morgan Seger (16:37):
Joe Bassett (16:39):
Morgan Seger (16:39):
Joe Bassett (16:40):
You know, some of those soils in western Ohio, you got these like really high clay soils, and in some areas, probably a little bit further north of you, you get these like reddish clays that are almost like modeling clay, right?
Morgan Seger (16:54):
Joe Bassett (16:54):
Just not... Specifically about tillage and stuff like that, soils that are not forgiving soils to make mistakes in, or to do too much when it's too wet, and so on and so forth. And I remember going out to a customer's place... Actually, he's been a long time customer, and we were selling this fertilizer application thing. And I remember looking at the soil and it's just like, you can just grab it, and just like...
Joe Bassett (17:20):
Even when it's dry, you can just grab it, and just make a perfect ball of soil. And you get some... Cover crops are going to be... But the state of Ohio, the state of Ohio got a lot of resources out there right now. I mean, with the problem in the Great Lakes there... I mean, aren't they really, really promoting soil health and cover crops in those watersheds?
Morgan Seger (17:46):
Yeah. Yeah. And there's a lot of work going towards it. And I think that's why we keep coming back to this conversation. It feels a little bit like, okay, we can do this thing, but we don't have a ton of data supporting the decision. Like you were saying, it's risky. There's a lot of ways that we can mess up.
Morgan Seger (18:03):
And so far, as growers, our business feels successful, if you take away the implications of the watershed and those kinds of things. So, that's, I guess where I'm kind of getting at, like bridging the gap, like for growers that want to become a part of the conversation, it feels kind of tricky. And that's why I like Twitter and being able to hear... And I don't always reach out to people like but-
Joe Bassett (18:28):
Are you doing conventional tillage right now? Sorry to interrupt. But are doing...
Morgan Seger (18:30):
Joe Bassett (18:30):
... conventional tillage right now?
Morgan Seger (18:33):
We are predominantly no-till, unless we have an issue.
Joe Bassett (18:38):
And you're no-tilling corn also?
Morgan Seger (18:41):
Joe Bassett (18:41):
Morgan Seger (18:42):
Yeah. But there's-
Joe Bassett (18:43):
Morgan Seger (18:43):
You see everything around us. There's a lot of-
Joe Bassett (18:46):
Hey, it's there.
Morgan Seger (18:48):
You know, a lot of...
Joe Bassett (18:49):
You get in certain areas because it builds up a groundswell. Look, you go back six or seven years okay. Like our ZXR roller/crimper that we sell in the Underground Agriculture brand. That was invented by a southeast Pennsylvania farmer named Charles Martin. And it was like six or seven years ago. And I saw this deal and I was like, "Whoa, that's a really good invention. Let's go out. Let's figure out how to bring this into our product line."
Joe Bassett (19:13):
And I went out to southeast Pennsylvania and that's at the time I kind of knew Steve Groff and the people at Cover Crop Solutions that were really, really, I think out ahead of their time. I think Steve Groff and what he did with Cover Crop Solutions actually deserve a lot of credit for just educating people about cover crops and bringing cover crops into the popular psyche of American farmers.
Joe Bassett (19:43):
I went out there, and you go to areas of the east coast like that, and it is just no till, no till, no till in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. And you go out there and you're like, "Okay. Well, if this could happen here, hey, this could happen anywhere." And about at that same time, okay, you've got the Iowa water quality lawsuit in the Des Moines Water Works and everything, and you think, okay, well, maybe there's going to be this sort of ground swell around water quality that's going to cause a bunch of change, but that ultimately didn't prove to be the case at all.
Joe Bassett (20:23):
You know what we need, and I know a bunch of people that are in the sort of soil health advocacy community. There needs to be a place that will essentially... Okay. What if instead of coming out with a big direct payment, why don't they start equipment libraries, right? Where somebody like us. Okay... I'm just going to throw that out there, it should probably be us. And we produce a little six-row library that could show up on a truck. Okay. And it's going to be a planter, a strip tiller, a roller crimper, two different roller crimpers, and a variety of other stuff. Okay. Everything you need to make it all work, and then, you unload it and you pay... It's like a subsidized rental fee.
Morgan Seger (21:12):
Joe Bassett (21:12):
And instead of buying that, it's six rows. So, even if you're farming on a really large scale, don't do the whole farm, do 50 acres. Okay. Who doesn't have a 150 horsepower tractor go out there, you know, 200-horsepower depending and do 50 acres. That would be effective, where you basically just remove barriers to entry that way.
Morgan Seger (21:41):
Joe Bassett (21:42):
Who's not willing to do an experiment on 50 acres with a subsidized equipment rental? And then, somebody else who's interested in advocacy, already investing a lot in advocacy, and there'd be a host of other tie-ins too. And then, you could step it up, all right. You could start with like strip till, and then, you're like, okay, I've got strip till, kind of feeling comfortable with those water wings on. Now, I'm going to step up into roller crimping. All right. And then, you step up into roller crimping. And then, you're kind of like, all right, I can make it work on my little demonstration, test plot, whatever.
Joe Bassett (22:23):
Then, you could go up all the way into the holy grail at Stock Cropper, where you're like, okay, now, we're going to integrate animal agriculture back into row crops. You know? We're probably going way over time right now. I always go way over time.
Morgan Seger (22:40):
That's fine. It's actually... So, an interesting idea. I actually think the Ohio State University has some equipment that's kind of like an equipment library that growers can borrow as needed, because they know it's more like niche equipment. I believe it's mostly around liquid manure application in season. They realize growers aren't going to make a big investment in that, so they kind of stocked it.
Joe Bassett (23:05):
Yeah. I mean, I like what they're doing at Ohio State. I mean, you got Scott Scheer there, and then, John Fulton is at Ohio State now, too. I mean, they're really, I think, looking at things in the right way. I mean, we've worked with the University of Wisconsin before. I think that they have people doing serious and efficacious research on cover crops, organic no-till also.
Morgan Seger (23:35):
Well, can I just ask one wrap up question for you?
Joe Bassett (23:38):
Morgan Seger (23:39):
So, on every episode of our podcast, we ask our guest, what is one technology they're most excited about.
Joe Bassett (23:46):
That exists now?
Morgan Seger (23:48):
Or it can be hypothetical that you think is exciting.
Joe Bassett (23:52):
What's a technology that I'm really excited about? I'm really excited about the James Webb Space Telescope.
Morgan Seger (23:59):
Joe Bassett (24:00):
That was just recently launched successfully. What an amazing achievement that is for humanity. Because with the James Webb Space Telescope, we're going to basically be able to see back in time, and that's a really big thing for humanity, to understand where we came from.
Morgan Seger (24:20):
I'm pretty uneducated in this. How is it going to help us see back in time?
Joe Bassett (24:27):
So, for whatever reason, astrophysicists believe that the universe is... Well, they don't believe, they know, that the universe is expanding over time. Okay?
Morgan Seger (24:37):
Joe Bassett (24:37):
Which is why they theorized that there was a big bang, because when you look at the expansion of the universe over time, it looks like every place in the universe is getting further away from us. Okay. So, when things move away from you, like whether it's sound, you know, the Doppler effect, when a car comes by you with a horn, when the car is coming towards you, the compression of the air causes the frequency of the horn to be higher. And then, as it passes you, it becomes lower. Okay. So, light is the same way in space.
Joe Bassett (25:09):
And so, when light is moving away from you, it has a different shift in its wavelength. And so, what the James Webb Space Telescope is going to do is that... The Hubble Space Telescope was largely looking at the sky through the visible light spectrum, which is the colors and wavelengths of light that you and I can see as human beings. The James Webb Space Telescope is going to be looking at the sky with lower frequency sensors that are going to be tuned more to non-visible light spectrum that's going to basically allow us to open up the range of things you can see going back in time much more because of the shift to lower frequencies.
Morgan Seger (25:56):
Joe Bassett (25:56):
So, by sensing the lower frequencies, you're looking at radiation that is further back in time, essentially.
Morgan Seger (26:05):
Interesting. Well, I will look into that and try to learn a little bit more. And I'll be sure, in our show notes, to link out to your websites and your Twitter account. I appreciate you taking the time today.
Joe Bassett (26:16):
Cool. Sounds good. Thanks a lot.
Morgan Seger (26:17):
Joe Bassett (26:17):
Morgan Seger (26:19):
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Precision Points. We are so grateful that you choose to spend this time with us. And we are trying to bring the most value we can through the conversations we have on this show.
Morgan Seger (26:30):
This ended up being a pretty wide ranging conversation in terms of topics, but I think it just goes to show the things that are top of mind. So, as we sit here, January 2022, what changes are you thinking about making for your operation this year? We love to get your feedback, and appreciate the ideas and topics our listeners have sent us. If you have a good idea for who our next guest should be, be sure to shoot us a message.
Morgan Seger (26:53):
As always, the show notes for each episode are available at precisioagreviews.com. While you're there, check out our grower source reviews. We're creating a database of information, so that way, your next purchase and decision can be a little bit easier. I recently ran across some data that said that most consumers do the majority of their research online before actually pulling the trigger and buying a new product or service. So, we hope that the information we're providing at precisionagreviews.com is useful to you in your decision-making process.
Morgan Seger (27:25):
Until next time, this has been the Precision Points podcast. Let's grow together.
Thanks for tuning in to today's episode. To hear more podcasts like this, please rate, review and subscribe to Precision Points. Visit precisionagreviews.com for show notes from this episode, and read expert advice on the blog. Share your experience with the precision ag products you use, and check out our network of farmer reviews. Let's grow together.