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'King of Cover Crops,' David Brandt, passes

 David Brandt being interviewed in the cab of his New Holland tractor by WYSO's Renee Wilde while spring planting.
Renee Wilde
David Brandt being interviewed in the cab of his New Holland tractor by WYSO's Renee Wilde while spring planting.

David Brandt was a central Ohio farmer and international leader in the conservationist movement who taught no-till and cover crop soil management on his farm and around the world. He was also an unlikely, but popular, global meme. Brandt died this month at the age of 76 after a car crash. He leaves behind a deep legacy of conservation. Renee Wilde has this remembrance of a visit with Brandt at his farm in Carroll, Ohio.

Renee Wilde: In the spring of 2021, I found myself standing along a deserted country road. I was there to interview David Brandt, an agricultural pioneer who had turned to no-till farming and cover crops in the 1970’s as a way to conserve and replenish healthy farmland.

The only catch to the interview was that Brandt was behind in his spring planting.

My instructions were to stand beside the county road until his blue, late model,New Holland tractor made a large, concentric loop around the farm field and passed by the road. Then Brandt would swoop me up in the cab of his tractor and we would conduct the interview while he continued planting.

It was my first time in the cab of a big tractor, and man was it LOUD, and bumpy, as Brandt planted soybean seeds directly into last year's corn stubble on the 100 acre field. A practice commonly referred to as no-till, because you don’t till the soil up first before planting seeds.

Brandt began using the no-till method in 1969, which is now considered a basic tenant of regenerative agriculture.

Dave Brandt: It wasn’t regenerative farming then, it was conservation farming. Not moving much soil, or not having erosion from the fields. So that was the reason that we went to no-till.

Wilde: But traditionally the no-till method involves a lot of chemicals to kill and suppress weeds.

Brandt: We started in ‘78 with cover crops because we started losing yield just by no-tilling corn and beans together, and we found that rye worked really well to suppress the winter annuals. It increased the soil bean production by about 4%.

Wilde: In the late ‘90’a Brandt met Steve Groff, a regenerative farmer and the author ofThe Future -Proof Farm. The two started to experiment with cover crops on Brandt's Ohio farm, where Groff developed the tillage radish - a Daikon-style radish with long slender roots that are ideal for breaking up hard clay and compacted soils.

Brandt: We started planting peas and radishes together as a cover crop and that worked extremely well. The radish went deep and helped to break up the hardpan. Winter peas gave nitrogen for the radishes as they got bigger.

Wilde: The giant radish is so stellar at loosening the compacted soil and improving the organic soil matter that David achieved bigger yields on his corn crops.

Down the road, a field of waist high foliage is dotted with red crimson clover flowers and purple fronds of hairy vetch. Sunflower skeletons from last season bend gracefully over the lush foliage.

David uses a different type of no-till method in this field. He will plant directly into this tall cover crop, and then run a piece of equipment over the field with a roller attached that bends the foliage so that it lays on the newly planted seeds and acts as mulch for the soil as it decomposes.

Brandt: Most of our cover crops for corn have at least ten 10 species in it. When we started using nine and ten (species) for corn it eliminated the use of nutrients by 75%.

In other words our nitrogen rates went down, our row starters went way down, our chemicals were reduced by as much as 60%.

And that’s when we started calling it regenerative farming. Because we were regenerating the soils by the use of diverse root systems that each one of those plants give.

Wilde: David’s cover crop rotation starts with sunflowers, sun hemp and cowpeas as a warm season legume.

Brandt: Then we’ll use crimson clover, hairy vetch, winter pea, blanket clover, barley, some rye, and flax.

Wilde: David found out that using flax on his fields helped build the mycorrhizal community which increases a plants resilience against insects and diseases.

Brandnt: So we eliminated the use of insecticides and fungicides thirteen years ago. And, all the corn and soybeans we plant today are, what I call, naked seeds, they have no treatment.

Wilde: David Brandt will be remembered not only as a pioneer in the regenerative agriculture movement, but also as the legend behind the viral meme which pairs a photo of Brandt on his farm with the words, It ain’t much, but at least it’s honest work.

The meme, featuring a smiling Brandt in bib-overalls and a ball cap, that has launched numerous lines of t-shirts, hats and even a billboard in Texas.

David Brandt is survived by his son, daughter-in-law and grandson.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.