St. Olaf Ag Sales And Service | Clayton County

Story Submitted by Eric Palas, Water Quality Initiative Project Coordinator in Clayton County

On October 9th, I was wrapping up the layout of a terrace project when a familiar pickup pulling a seed tender stopped on the road next to the soybean field where I was working. The driver, Robert Sass, stopped long enough to tell me that his drill would be pulling into the field to plant a cereal rye cover crop that afternoon. Rob had already cautioned the drill operator to avoid the flags that marked the terrace project. The situation was familiar, during fall terrace layout in 2014, I had been chased around by the Sass' no-till drill on at least four other farms. Robert and Mary Sass operate approximately 800 acres of cropland in northwest Clayton County near Luana. Their ag business enterprise, "St. Olaf Ag Sales and Service" (appropriately abbreviated SASS) served as the seed source for over 3,000 acres of cover crops that were aerially seeded with Clayton Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) assistance in 2015. When harvest begins, the SASS custom no-till drill is constantly on the move. The demand for the drill has steadily risen as more area farmers are trying cover crops and seek efficient ways to get cover crops planted while the weather is favorable.

Q. What water quality practices have you used on your farm?
A. The Sass' farm operation reflects their willingness to experiment with, and utilize innovative conservation practices. The majority of their crop acres are farmed with a corn/soybean rotation. Robert uses a no-till planting system. Over one mile of terraces were constructed on their home farm prior to 1988. Cover crops were added to the operation in 2012. The Sass' typically drill cereal rye immediately after soybean harvest, but have also experimented with aerial seeding and early season cover crop applications.

Q. Why did you voluntarily adopt these practices?
A. Rob reflected on the need for these practices when he was interviewed by the Clayton County Register shortly after receiving an Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award in 2014. "I hate seeing bare soybean stubble, and I worry about what will happen to that soil when the snow melts and the spring rains hit". He added, "We do it because we think it's the best thing for the land, we need to do what we can to preserve the soil, when it's gone, it's gone".

Q. What, if any, assistance did you receive to incorporate these practices (financial as well as technical)?
A. The Iowa Financial Incentives Program helped the Sass' complete their series of terrace projects more than twenty years ago. The program is still popular in Clayton County, there is a long waiting list of applicants for terrace, waterway, and grade stabilization structure projects. Robert secured a USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract that helped him to get started with cover crops. Many of his neighbors and clients within the Silver Creek and Upper Roberts Creek watersheds have tried cover crops for the first time after applying for cost share incentives through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative - Targeted Demonstration Watershed Project program.

Q. What is your philosophy as it relates to farming and the environment?
A. Robert and Mary Sass have been a leading proponent of no-till and cover crop systems. In addition to utilizing these practices within their own farming operation, their efforts to promote soil conservation have had a direct impact on the growing use of cover crops in northeast Iowa. Many of the Clayton SWCD cooperators that utilize no-till or cover crops have benefitted from the Sass' advice and experience. Their willingness to implement innovative practices, to share their experiences with the neighbors and customers, and to encourage their efforts has had a huge impact on the success of conservation efforts in Clayton County.