“The Godfather of Soil Health” David Brandt

Popular meme featuring David Brandt. Photo via www.knowyourmeme.com.

Most well-known for the meme depicting him with the quote “It ain’t much, but its honest work,” many do not know David Brandt was a very influential Ohio farmer who had the attention of the USDA, NRCS, and even the French agricultural minister.  

Brandt passed away due to injuries from a car accident earlier this year in May, but his legacy as a soil health educator leaves a lot to learn from his life and attitude. 

In 1971, Brandt began experimenting with no-till farming, eventually becoming one of the most influential farmers using a mixture of no-till farming and cover crops.  

With a seasonal rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and cover crops, Brandt’s diverse rotation slashed soil erosion, herbicide and fertilizer use, made his farm more resilient to abnormal weather, and gave him yields above the county average. 

These practices led to massive accumulation of organic matter in his fields. According to the book “Perilous Bounty” by Tom Philpott, one of his fields started at about 0.25% organic content. After two years of cover cropping, it had risen to 1.25%, and in some fields after ten years of these practices they reached between four and seven percent. 

Philpott wrote that in the summer of 2013, “Half his corn and soy crop was flourishing without the use of either [herbicide or fertilizer], and the other half had gotten much lower applications than the county crop consultants recommended” due to his diverse use of cover crops. Additionally, his farm went from ten tons of soil loss a year to about 100 pounds. 

High carbon soils like Brandt had cultivated tend to not wash or blow away in storms and tend to hold more water during droughts. According to soil scientist Rafiq Islam with the University of Ohio, during a drought in 2012, Brandt’s farm maintained about 90% of their long-term average output, while nearby farmers’ yields dropped by 50%, or they lost their crops entirely. 

Brandt used what many call a “cover crop cocktail mix” with a mixture of fourteen different species including hairy vetch, rye, and tillage radishes, also known as daikon radishes.  

This mixture would be planted in the fall after harvest, wake from dormancy in the spring to protect the soil from spring rains, and then be crimped down before planting. The crimped cover crops would act as a barrier to cover the ground and prevent weeds from growing, combatting one of the biggest challenges in no-till farming. 

Despite using two methods that are often hallmarks of organic agriculture, Brandt never intended to go organic. According to Philpott, “He preferred the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch.” 

With these practices and an insistence to share his knowledge, Brandt became one of the world’s major figures for soil health, working alongside Ray Archuleta. Many people in agriculture knew him best for his openness to educating, highlighting his own failures for teaching purposes, and helping other farmers begin conservation practices. 

In an interview on the podcast “Field Work” in 2022, Brandt said, “I really think it’s the educational part of it, I don’t think its funding… We don’t need to pay farmers to do this, we just need to educate them, to show them that there’s a better way. What they’re doing is not wrong, but there’s a better way… Maybe large industry won’t like us when we say we can get by with 30 or 40 percent less fertilizer, or 30 or 40 percent less herbicide, but just think about what that would mean in today’s market…” 

In this interview, Brandt was asked what he thought his legacy would be: “I’m just a farmer. I’m trying to share our information, and if I build a legacy, I’m tickled. But I’m not out here every day saying I’m the best, I’m probably the worst that there is. I’m just trying to educate other producers, and it’s surprising to me when I work with producers… they have been here, but they have taken it farther than I ever thought it could go. And that’s what I’m proud about because they’ve taken it and adopted it to their location and made it even better.” 

Exceedingly humble about his impact and legacy, Brandt’s passing has been felt throughout the agricultural industry. 

More information about David Brandt’s life and farm can be found in various articles at http://www.no-tillfarmer.com and the “Field Work” podcast episode titled “The Godfather of Soil Health.” Additionally, the Brandt Family Farm can be supported by buying cover crop and gardening seeds through Walnut Creek Seeds at http://www.walnutcreekseeds.com .

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