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No-Till Pioneer Remembered for His Roots in Conservation
Ohio Ag Connection - 05/26/2023

When David Brandt began experimenting with no-till farming in 1971, his crops weren’t all that would flourish.

He grew a movement.

The Ohio farmer is considered one of the founders of no-till in the U.S., revolutionizing agriculture across the nation. He became a vocal proponent of no-till, cover crops and other regenerative ag practices, traveling the country and the world to share what he learned with thousands.

No-till is a widely adopted practice today, and those who plant without plowing were shocked by the loss of the man who helped start it all.

Brandt, 76, died May 21 from injuries sustained in a vehicle accident in Illinois.

Brandt embraced no-till on his Ohio farm as a way to cut input costs. He was also an early adopter of cover crops and a strong believer in soil health, and over the decades countless farmers followed his path.

“He was a key player in the no-till movement. Unquestionably,” said Steve Groff, a Lancaster County farmer who, like Brandt, has gained an international following for his work in cover crops and no-till agriculture.

"Dave definitely moved the needle forward with no-tilling and cover crops, yet he never felt it reached it’s mark. There was always more people out there that needed to hear the gospel."

- Jim Hershey, Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance

“He influenced me. He was one of them that laid the foundation.”

Jim Hershey, president of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, called Brandt a friend and a mentor. He said Brandt always took the time to share what he learned. It wasn’t always easy to convince farmers that they didn’t have to plow, but Brandt persisted with his message.

“He was a lone bandit for many years with the no-till approach. But he believed in what he was doing even when others were saying it wouldn’t work,” Hershey said. “Dave definitely moved the needle forward with no-tilling and cover crops, yet he never felt it reached its mark. There was always more people out there that needed to hear the gospel.”

Groff said Brandt was courageous in his push for no-till, even back in the 1970s when plowing had long been the accepted practice.

The no-till approach was unconventional and even unpopular back then, Groff said, but Brandt wouldn’t give up.

“The peer pressure in the agriculture community is real. The coffee shop talk is a real thing, and some people won’t engage in a new practice for fear of being ridiculed,” Groff said. “Dave didn’t care. He felt it was right.”

Brandt’s personality helped craft his popularity and further the reach of his message. Through all his speaking engagements, media interviews and awards, Brandt was still a farmer and a humble person at heart.

“He was a big man, but he had a gentleness about him. He made everyone feel welcome and he wasn’t arrogant,” Groff said. “That’s why he was so popular.”

And relatable to other farmers.

Brandt experienced the struggles that so many farmers have faced, Hershey said.

A Marine and Vietnam veteran, Brandt faced tragedy soon after returning home when his father was killed in a tractor accident. The family farm had to be sold, and Brandt had to start over as a tenant farmer. He later purchased another farm owned by his grandmother.

“At the time, no one around him was no-tilling, but Dave knew if he wanted to farm, he had to save on fuel costs and cut down on his equipment investment,” Hershey said. “So he bought his first Allis Chalmers planter and started no-tilling.”

Brandt’s contributions to no-till, cover crops and soil health will live on as an inspiration for many, according to Jeff Graybill, an agronomy educator with Penn State Extension.

Trying new practices and testing them at the university level is one thing, Graybill said, but Brandt did his experimentation publicly. His success helped lead to wider adoption of no-till and recognition of the importance of soil health.

“As our awareness of soil health, microbes and organic matter and the need to manage for that continues to increase, Dave Brandt helped raise the awareness that soil is a living organism,” Graybill said.

Last year, No-Till on the Plains announced a new award for producers committed to improving soil health. The award was named The David Brandt Soil Legacy Award and recognizes people who innovate, disrupt the norm, and promote soil building and soil biology for our future.


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