The Guilette family: continually improving on conservation

Guilette Farms, near Casco in Kewaunee County, has been in the family for four generations. Allen and Debbie Guilette own and operate the farm. In recent years, their sons Aaron and Nick have begun taking over more of the day-to-day operations.

A hog farm at one time, today the Guilettes grow corn, soybeans and wheat on 300 acres. They also do custom combining, tilling and some planting on about 3,000 acres for other small farmers in the area.

Changes bring benefits
Guilette Farms has seen a lot of changes over the years. In Allen’s father’s day, tillage was done with a moldboard plow, where the soil was completely turned over. Allen replaced it with a chisel plow, which cut through the soil and stirred it up, causing less disturbance. Today, they are close to being 100% no-till across their 300 acres, planting their seeds without disturbing the soil and leaving the plant residue from the previous crop on the surface of the soil.

Allen and Debbie credit their son Nick, an agronomist and certified crop advisor, with leading the way on conservation practices, but they are all on board with the changes and the benefits they’re seeing.

“With the no-tilling, our yields are the same as they were when we were doing the full tillage package,” says Aaron. “And I think they’re slowly starting to improve. It takes a while to see the benefits, but I’m noticing with the no-tilling that it seems the moisture in the ground is the correct moisture, not overly saturated, but not bone dry. It maintains itself better.”

“When Allen and I first started farming here in the early ‘80s, we didn’t see a lot of wildlife besides deer,” says Debbie. “Today, we have sandhill cranes out here, bald eagles sitting on their nests and turkeys. Some of that conservation tillage provides them with food, I guess, because you see them picking out the bits of corn left on the fields.”

Unique geology, unique challenges
One of the interesting things about the Guilette farm and others in the area, Nick notes, is their location on the Niagara Escarpment, the same bedrock feature that Niagara Falls spills over. He says it’s a privilege to have this unique geological feature in northeast Wisconsin, but it is also a challenge for farming.

Karst landscapes, like those in Kewaunee and neighboring Door County, have cracks and crevasses where anything applied to the land can quickly make its way into the groundwater. And it’s one of the reasons, Nick comments, that conservation practices are so important.

Nick is on the board of directors of Peninsula Pride Farms, a group formed in 2016 by farmers and businesses to address agriculture’s role in improving water quality in Kewaunee and southern Door counties. The group started small, but today there are 54 farmers, big and small, representing about half of the cows and tillable acres in the area.
Farmers in the group are experimenting with a variety of practices on their farm fields to improve the soil and protect surface waters and groundwater. In addition to reducing their tillage, they are planting cover crops to hold the soil in place and use up nitrogen, so it doesn’t run off or leach through the soil and end up in the water. They are applying smaller amounts of fertilizer to their fields more often, so the plants get just what they need, minimizing the amount of nitrogen left in the soil and making it less vulnerable to erosion.

Conservation conversations accelerate learning
On the Guilette farm, in addition to no-tilling, they are planting cover crops like radishes, barley crimson and red clover. They are also using a newer technique called planting green where corn or soybeans are planted directly into a growing cover crop without killing the cover crop first. Some of the benefits are more organic matter in the soil, weed control and erosion control because living roots are in the ground longer.

Aaron and Nick say there’s been plenty of trial and error to get to where they are today. For example, no-tilling soybeans in the heavy, clay soils on their farm wasn’t easy to figure out, but they kept at it. And they freely admit there is always more to learn.

“Adoption of conservation practices is a continual journey,” says Nick. “Fifteen years ago, the thinking was that no-till doesn’t work next to Lake Michigan in the heavy red soils here. So, it might seem like we’re challenging years of tradition, but we’re having success with it.”

They say that learning from other farmers about their successes and challenges has helped. In 2020, PPF started hosting informal events known as Conservation Conversations. Members take turns hosting the conversations on their farms and cover a variety of topics from grass waterways and cover crops to planting green and low-disturbance manure applications.

PPF is also a partner in the Door-Kewaunee Watershed Demonstration Farm Network, along with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. The four farms participating in the network test, demonstrate and share information about conservation practices and new technologies to improve soil health and reduce soil erosion. Nick is an advisor with the group.

“The Peninsula Pride and DK Demo Farm Network farmers are there to support each other and offer their ideas,” says Nick. “What we want to avoid is having a farmer try something that’s a good practice, fail miserably at it and never want to try it again. And that’s the power and the value of these farmer-led groups when they come together in a collaborative fashion.”

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