As their lives changed in the blink of an eye when both their farmer husbands died in a vehicle accident an hour from home, two Kansas farm women resolved not to sell the brothers’ farm
In fact, Lucinda Stuenkel and her sister-in-law, Sheila Stuenkel, who live one mile apart near Palmer, Kan., transformed a dark chapter in their lives into a positive difference in the lives of other farm women, by sharing their many successes.
Already passionately supportive of soil conservation and farm-improvement ideas while their husbands were alive, Lucinda and Sheila opened their farm and their hearts to host a first annual women’s workshop and tour, “Mom, Apple Pie & Conservation,” on June 22.
Some farm women drove two hours across Kansas and Nebraska to the Stuenkel farmstead.
Nestled deep inside remote Washington County, Kan., the Stuenkels farm milo, soybeans, wheat, corn, alfalfa, brome and native grasses, and have an Angus cow/calf herd.
“We’ve been known for our conservation projects for years,” Lucinda said. “The Kansas Rural Center, a private nonprofit organization promoting sustainable agriculture and food systems, had a grant for the event and needed a farm host site. We’ve also hosted tours for their project, ‘Clean Water Farms Project.’ ”
Much of Lucinda and Sheila’s work resulted from a highly organized professional notebook, which the Stuenkels completed for The Kansas Rural Center and Kansas State University’s Research and Extension/River Valley District project called, “The River Friendly Farm; Environmental Assessment Tool” in 2005.
Lucinda completed the notebook when her husband, Daryl, was alive.
“When my husband and I were at a Kansas Grazers Association conference, I saw that notebook under a display table and asked about purchasing that notebook,” Lucinda said. “It had the ‘Extension Service’ logo on it, so I knew it would be good.”
Although it wasn’t for sale, officials ended up paying Lucinda $200 to complete it. The notebook contents are available online at the Kansas Rural Center website’s River Friendly Farms project.
So, armed with clipboard pages, Lucinda followed her husband and his brother around the farm.
“We asked them everything from tillage management — we did really well in that, because we did no-till for almost 20 years — and asked how you store potentially hazardous materials on the farm, like fuel and oil,” Lucinda said. “I also asked how my husband managed solid waste, like manure. We did really well, because we grazed cattle year-round, so we don’t have much manure in one place.”
Stuenkel Farms scored higher than they expected on its environmental assessment.
They completed many projects with Natural Resource and Conservation Service, and received grants from different agencies.
Lucinda and Sheila enjoy sharing their farm and pasture for demonstration sites.
“It’s the right thing to do, to promote environmental stewardship so everyone can have cleaner water,” emphasized Lucinda. “After we lost our husbands in November 2010, I actually used that notebook extensively. It had one, two, three, five, seven, ten, and 15-year goals. Once we wrote the goals down, we accomplished one through five, just the first year.”
In that year, they repaired the ends of waterways and ditches, cut trees in pastures, fenced cattle out of gullies, filled in low spots on terraces, measured soil nutrients, and cross-fenced pastures for rotational grazing.
Mary Fund, policy and programs director for The Kansas Rural Center, chose Lucinda’s operation for this month’s tour because she had many conservation projects and good management practices to see within a two-mile area.
“Since women often end-up landowners, either being young, or tragically, as in Lucinda’s and Sheila’s experience, we can provide them a comfortable environment to learn conservation issues,” Fund said. “Women learn differently. Research has shown that women are often intimidated by the traditionally male-dominated farming industry, and don’t always like the classroom setting.”
Fund added that Kansas was one of five states funded with a grant sub-contracted by both The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network in Iowa.
She said she hopes more people will diversify their farms to protect soil and water, as the Stuenkels have done.
“You don’t want to farm every square inch,” Fund advised. “Don’t farm roadside-ditch-to-roadside-ditch. You need riparian areas protected. Also, next to a creek, you need at least a 60-foot buffer of grass and trees to slow down water run-off and sediment.”
Here are some of the conservation practices that have attracted interest to the Stuenkel farmstead:
■ A maternity barn with special stalls, designed from a woman’s perspective. “After reaching over for alfalfa that we leave within reach, the cow ends up closing the head gate with her shoulders, then, we perform necessary medical procedures,” shared Lucinda, showing the maternity barn to the tour group. “We let the cow calm down while eating and open the bottom half of the gate so her calf can nurse. She learns that when she is calm, she’ll be released from the mild restraint, which keeps us both safe while necessary medical procedures are performed. It doesn’t take muscles and we do not ‘man-handle’ anything.”
■ A relocated winter-feeding site, up out of the flood plain.
“We’re especially proud of that,” Lucinda said. “It improved the water-quality on our farm. Part of the geo-textile and stone feeding pad was matched with a grant. We added a pipe fence with our own funds for sorting pens and a corral at the new site. Now, working cattle is safer.”
■ Expired Conservation Reserve Program fenced and alternative livestock watering system.
“We renovated the expired CRP by fencing and installing a watering system in 2011, to improve soil fertility by rotational grazing,” Lucinda said. “We graze for two weeks, and rest it for 40 days. The secret is in the amount of time you rest. When there’s just dead grass, the land’s fertility decreases because the grass isn’t trampled into the soil for compost. The composted organic matter improves soil fertility and microbial activity.”
Lucinda also took time explain the benefits of their rock check dams.
“This is one of five rock check dams from the waterway to the creek, which the NRCS engineer designed to stop dirt and sediment from running into the stream,” described Lucinda.
Cover crops also make a significant difference on the farm.
“Because of cover crops, we don’t use as much hay,” Lucinda said. “The cattle digest the cover crops, and the results are manure; which adds nutrients to the soil. It’s like making your own compost right at the field.”
A cover crop specialist also spoke at the women’s workshop.
“The No. 1 myth we hear is the fear that cover crops would burn-up all the moisture. Here’s why that’s not true,” explained Dale Strickler, forage and cover crop specialist with Star Seed Inc., as he presented slides of fields with bountiful cover crops interwoven between cash crops, comparing them side-by-side with fields that had no cover crops.
Strickler cited results from a 2007 University of Illinois study, showing the benefits of cover crops.
“‘Green and always growing’ should be your theme,” Strickler said. “The No. 1 thing accomplished with cover crops is you contribute to soil organic matter. And, the more organic matter you have-the better your corn yield. Each additional percent of organic matter adds 16,000 gallons of water-holding capacity, per acre. Cover crops increase soil moisture and infiltration.”
Then, Strickler queried, “How do you prevent the next drought? Deepen the root zone, which incidentally, is made worse with the predominant corn/bean rotation. Farmers try to make roots at a time when oxygen is least available, just as the soil temperature hits 55 degrees in April, and peaks in June.”
Following wheat harvest, Strickler recommends planting these cover crops: oats, tillage radish and spring peas for cattle grazing. He also suggests Sunn Hemp — not for grazing, but for nitrogen and building organic matter.
The benefits of continuous flourishing plants was further detailed during a soil and rainfall simulation demonstration.
In a lineup of three containers of tilled soil, no-till soil from a corn field with wheat residue and milo stalks, and a living plant in untilled soil, a cup of water was poured simultaneously over each of the three soil samples.
“See the run-off from the tilled soil,” explained Lisa French, project coordinator with the Cheney Lake Watershed. “It was so dry on the soil bottom, that the water didn’t go all the way in. Meanwhile, the no-till soil held together better, but the living plant with roots that go down into the soil, provided a pathway for the water down into the soil. Think about a drought ... do you want run-off or do you want water going into the soil on your farm?”
Taking the farming methods their husbands used, and transforming them into workable methods for themselves as female farm owners, was a pivotal chapter in the lives of sisters-in-law Lucinda and Sheila.
“My husband, Daryl, and his brother, Kevin, who was Sheila’s husband, were headed to another state to get a pickup truck for the farm. On the way to the train station, they swerved to avoid something, and it rolled ... ” Lucinda said. “The Highway Patrol suspected a herd of deer crossed the road.”
The brothers were both killed.
They just finished harvest the day before.
“Our husbands died in November, and we had some ‘popsicle calves’ in January and February,” Lucinda told the audience. “We got them out of the frozen fields, but we’ve since learned to use this wheelbarrow to put in-between the mother and her calf, then put the calf in it. The guys did it one way ... ” Lucinda’s voice trailed wistfully, “But, as women, we’ve now learned to do it the way we can.”
With the financial and emotional value of farmland counting so deeply in the hearts of farmers, the Stuenkels value both what they have, and what they lost.
As Sheila Stuenkel put it, “I have two boys who were 9 and 6 years old when their dad died. Both boys will celebrate birthdays in July. Aaron will turn 12 years old. Ryan will be 9. The boys have been farming since they were big enough to get in a tractor. They love riding in the tractor. They dearly loved farming with their dad, and I knew in order for them to farm later in life, if I sold the farm, I’d never get it back.” ❖