Iowa, Minnesota farmers share the secrets behind on-farm conservation

Dean Sponheim and Andy Linder recently shared their successes and failures with cover crops and no-tilling at a soil-health workshop in Stewartville.

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Farmers Dean Sponheim, Andy Linder and Martin Larsen share their thoughts during a soil-health workshop in Stewartville, Minn. on Feb. 8, 2023.
Noah Fish / Agweek

STEWARTVILLE, Minn. — With the ground still frozen under foot in February, a workshop in Stewartville, Minnesota, featured experienced conservationist farmers Dean Sponheim and Andy Linder talking about preparing that soil this coming spring.

The accidental conservationist

Dean Sponheim is a fourth-generation farmer from Mitchell County, Iowa, just across the border from Minnesota's Mower County. He started strip tilling in 1999 and then no-tilling corn and soybean acres in 2019, as well as aerial applying cover crops in 2012. He starting a cover crop seed business in 2014.

"We're planning all our corn and soybeans into green cover crops, whether they're stripped or no till," said Sponheim, who calls himself the “accidental conservationist."

"Because most of the practices that I do, or have done, are not because of conservation reasons," Sponheim said of the title. "Mainly it was because of financial reasons, or some problems I had in agronomic situations on my farm."

Sponheim, who farms with his son and wife, said his real passion is helping producers work through the challenges when implementing change on the farm.


"If I can do it, anybody can do it," he said.

He believes the majority of promotion for conservation practices are done in the wrong way — telling producers that the efforts are all for soil health that benefit only water quality and erosion.

"Most of the farmers are looking at it financially," said Sponheim. "What's in it for them? Well once you start doing this, you will see that there is a financial benefit."

For farmers interested, Sponheim said the first step is to figure out why you want to do it.

"For yourself, not for somebody else, or a government agency," he said.

The next step is to get in touch with a good resource that'll be there for you when you make mistakes. That's easier now than when Sponheim first started using conservation practices.

"Find somebody that you can talk to and bounce ideas off of — somebody who has been doing this," he said. "When I started this, there wasn't any type of network of people doing these kind of practices, so we were kind of on our own, and that's scary."

Other speakers at CLASIC (Crop, Livestock and Soil Innovation Conferences) in Stewartville included Martin Larsen, who farms 700 acres near Byron, Minnesota, Greg Olson, a field project director for the nonprofit Sand County Foundation and will talk about its “Show Me the Data” three-year, on-farm demonstration with 30 collaborating farmers across Minnesota and Wisconsin.


Events like the soil innovation conferences offer that chance for producers, who can continue relationships with the speakers they hear from, said Sponheim.

"The only thing better than this would be to actually go out in the field, and have field days," he said. "But this gives producers an opportunity to not make the same mistakes that I did."

Mistakes happen

Andy Linder farms with his father near Easton, Minnesota, raising corn, soybeans, oats, canning crops and grass hay. The journey to soil health started for Linder unintentionally, he said, in 2010, when they bought a vertical-tillage machine.

"I'm going to call this getting comfortable with being uncomfortable," said Linder during his presentation. "Because using cover crops and no-till can be very uncomfortable, especially if you have neighbors watching you, and have your landlords watching — everybody's watching you, and what you're doing, and they're just waiting to point a finger the first time you make a mistake."

And mistakes are bound to happen, said Linder, but mistakes happen in all types of farming and not just with conservation techniques. Most of the time, the mistakes in farming have to do with the weather, not the operator, which makes them impossible to plan for. Linder gave the example of a Memorial Day frost.

"I like to ask people, haven't you ever made a mistake? Because we all make them, it's just a matter of what we want to blame it on," said Linder. "The cover crop system is a really easy system to blame it on, where you make a mistake in the conventional world, people just blame it on the weather or something else like the co-op. It wasn't my fault, but it's never our fault."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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