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'Make sure the soil is taken care of': Mower County brothers recognized for soil, water conservation efforts

Brothers Al and Ron Akkerman have been farming in Mower County for more than three decades. They have installed two berms on their farmland that capture rainwater and prevent excess runoff.

Al and Ron Akkerman - mower swcd honorees 2022.jpg
Al Akkerman (left) and Ron Akkerman are the Mower County Soil & Water Conservation District's 2022 Conservationists of the Year.
Contributed / Mower Soil & Water Conservation District
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BROWNSDALE — Conservation seems to run in the Akkerman family.

Mower County brothers Al Akkerman and Ron Akkerman were recently recognized for their longstanding soil and water conservation efforts on their respective farms.

The brothers are the Mower County Soil & Water Conservation District's 2022 Conservationists of the Year. They run separate operations on more than 1,000 acres of cropland in Mower and Freeborn counties, but they share resources and labor to bring in their corn and soybean harvests each year.

"Most of our land is really close to Brownsdale," Al said. "I'd say 90% of it is within 7 miles of Brownsdale."

Their conservation practices — which include no-till farming, no fall nitrogen application and rainwater berms — stem from doing what's right for their operations and their soil.

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"That was nice to have the recognition; it's not like we feel like we're doing anything very special, I guess," Ron said of the award. "But (it's) stuff we want to do."

"Nothing that anybody else couldn't do," Al added.

The brothers were born into a farm family. Their father, Alvin Akkerman, raised dairy cattle, beef cattle and chickens. After high school, Al, the older brother, said he sought some higher education, but kept farming throughout his adult life. When Ron went to college, though, he switched out of agriculture and sought a four-year degree in accounting.

"I was working off the farm for a few years in an accounting department at a bank," Ron said. "After a few years of that, my dad passed away kind of suddenly."

Alvin Akkerman died in 1989, prompting both brothers to farm full-time.

"It was really more room for me to come back into the operation," Ron said. "I did jump on that chance to do that, get back into farming. So it's a little bit of a circle for me."

It wasn't until the early 2000s when Al began to "dabble with no-till," he said. No-till is the practice of not tilling fields between harvesting and planting crops, leaving the soil and the remaining crop residue undisturbed. Per the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the practice can help reduce soil erosion and maintain soil health.

"It can be a problem to get all your fall tillage done in the fall if the weather doesn't cooperate," Al said. "I wanted to look at that just for more of a plan B-type strategy, not a planned practice. I wanted to get my feet wet and get to understand how no-till works for us."

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As the Akkermans gradually implemented no-till practices on their fields and purchased some no-till equipment, Al said they were pretty happy with their plans.

"From that point on, we'd just gradually get more and more no-till until it got to the point where we were doing a real high percentage of no-till," Al said. "I don't think we've ever had 100% no-till; for some reason or another, we'll always have some fall tillage, but not much at this point now."

A common worry about no-till is that it reduces crop yield. But over the past two decades, Al and Ron said they haven't seen any difference in yield in their no-till fields versus their tilled fields.

"There's disadvantages to virtually every practice," Al said. "There's disadvantages to no-till, also, but we feel as though there's way more advantages than there (are) disadvantages."

The Akkermans have employed other conservation practices, like not applying nitrogen fertilizer in the fall (preventing nitrogen runoff into nearby waterways) and installing vegetative buffers between their farmland and waterways before state law required those buffers.

Their latest conservation efforts come through a partnership with the Mower Soil & Water Conservation District. The Mower SWCD installed two earthen berms on one of the Akkermans' rented fields that, together, can store more than 5.7 million gallons of stormwater or snowmelt that would otherwise contribute to flooding and soil erosion.

"The Akkerman brothers have been instrumental in improving the water quality of Dobbins Creek and reducing its propensity for flash flooding that can lead to over-topped rural roads and major erosion," Mower SWCD manager Cody Fox said in a press release.

"It's really a good thing," Ron said. "It really doesn't hinder us very much, and it really helps pull the flow of water back."

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The Akkermans and the Mower SWCD plan on building two more berms on the Akkermans' farmland in 2023.

When it comes to considering other conservation practices, Ron said he and Al are open to other ideas, like cover crops, but are waiting to see how those changes work for other farms.

"We really do rely a lot on the University of Minnesota studies and what trials they do," Ron said. "If you listen to podcasts and other talk ... they're talking about farmers being able to capture carbon credits and things like that. We're open to that, (but) we don't really have any plans on jumping into that."

At the end of the day, the Akkermans' conservation farming practices reflect how they treat their farmland, both owned and rented.

"We like to treat it as if we owned it," Ron said. "It's a case where we want to do a really good job on everything, whether we own it or not. Make sure that the soil is taken care of for the next person."

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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