Perspectives Online

Demonstrations in courage: Conservation champion Beecher Grose faces nature's challenges

Conservationist Larry Hendrix (left) says Grose (right), "is the E.F. Hutton of conservation issues: When he speaks, people listen."
Dr. Alan J. Franzluebbers

For master dairy farmer Beecher Grose, it was simultaneously the best of years; the worst of years.

And sometimes in 2005 it must have seemed to Grose - Iredell County soil conservation guru and College alumnus (class of 1950) - that nature was toying with him, despite all his efforts to conserve the soil from which he and his family earn their living.

Earlier this year, sponsors Syngenta, John Deere and Mosaic Inc., named Grose a "Champion of Conservation" for his five decades of pioneering soil conservation efforts on his 1,050-acre Ho-Ha Farm. The award was cosponsored by the Purdue University-based Conservation Technology Information Center.

As Larry Hendrix, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist, said in CTIC's Partners magazine, "Beecher Grose is like the E.F. Hutton on conservation issues: When he speaks, people listen. He is a producer who truly cares about the land and is a true steward of all the resources he manages."

Two years before this year's honor, Grose, 79, had sustained a mobility-limiting hip injury when a truck struck his left-turning tractor. However, with the continued help of his sons, he kept supervising the farm work.

But the land the Groses farm so carefully took a hellacious July beating from a Tropical Storm Cindy-spawned tornado. It blew down much of their 100 acres of timber - along with field-bordering trees that took out four miles of fencing - and tore roofs from his son Billy's home, dairy barns and outbuildings to the tune of an estimated $400,000 in structural damage.

Grose, speaking after the horrific event to the Statesville Record and Landmark, called the situation "disheartening . . . we will not recover in my lifetime," he said. "People came and helped at first, but they had their own places to look out for."

Grose said his son Neal will be repairing the damage for many years. To add insult to injury, early autumn rains from Hurricane Tammy dropped more than seven inches in the farm's bottomlands, flooding creeks with rapid upstream mountain runoff for an unprecedented second time in one season and flattening the already soggy 400-acre corn crop.

"We've put up the cattle in barns and are using temporary pasture," Neal said recently. "But we're putting off things that need to be done while we do the emergency things that have to be done first. Actually, the drop in milk and crop production is having a greater impact than the direct effects of the tornado."

It's not as if Beecher Grose has not surmounted obstacles before.

Grose first picked up an interest in soil conservation from his high school agriculture teacher, but was caught up in the global conflict of World War II. He returned from U.S. Navy service to graduate from N.C. State. But back at his family farm, he faced severely eroded, almost desolate landscapes.

Nevertheless, Grose bought a few dairy cattle, using their manure to enrich the soil. Impressed by those results, he started strip cropping - rotating crops by strips in a field to improve the land - and saw more good results.

Inspired by NRCS district conservationists, Grose began strip cropping the late 1950s, then pioneered no-till - planting seed without disturbing the soil - in the late '60s. That allowed him to cover twice the land he had with conventional farming.

Grose worked with NRCS to develop comprehensive plans for soil, water, air, plants and wildlife, rotating strip crops with perennial alfalfa and orchard grass hay. In 1970, he bought his first no-till planter; in 1993, his first no-till drill, letting him plant all his cropland to no-till and seldom till his upland acres at all. He began to note changes in soil texture and water-holding capacity and enjoyed resultant increased yields, especially in summer crops.

He has fought excessive cropland erosion, stream-bank flooding, impaired soil and water quality, excess runoff, and farmland and wildlife habitat losses to urban development pressures. He uses a state-of-the-art, solid-set irrigation system for liquid dairy manure applications for waste utilization and monitors nutrient concentration trends. He has grassed pathways near irrigation equipment to ensure the ability to apply manure in wet years without excess soil compaction and to reduce the environmental threat if the waste storage overflows.

Some of his practices - delaying field border and buffer mowing until after the nesting season, for instance - have enhanced wild turkey and bobwhite quail populations.

Grose believes in letting his soil "breathe" and doesn't overload it by multi-cropping. In 2002's exceptionally dry summer, he resisted the temptation to harvest a rye cover for silage (the norm) but left it for biomass and ground cover. He later harvested 15 to18 tons of silage, when many of his neighbors were not even putting a silage cutter in the field.

"Today," says Grose, "we are able to eliminate the need for cutting small grain silage as an insurance crop because of the increased yield on our corn acreage. We are also finding that we are able to reduce the amount of fertilizer that must be applied to our crops."

"The ground cover essentially stops erosion and associated pollutants and reduces runoff losses," says Bobby Brock, state NRCS conservation agronomist, who nominated Grose for the Champion of Conservation award.

Grose served as a North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor for more than 20 years, and was recognized as an outstanding layman in soil and water conservation by the Hugh Hammond Bennett Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society in 2002.

As a SWCD research committee member, he persuaded the association to sponsor research and information sessions about continuous no-till's value.

And now, on what has been a demonstration farm in the best of years, Grose and his family in the worst of years are demonstrating the enduring survival qualities of the American farmer.

- Art Latham