A No-till Farmer who Keeps his Healthy Soil: Leon Morrison - Member Profile

By Anne Queenan

Never too old to learn and work hard for what makes sense to you…. This seems to be the way of it with 82-year-old Leon Morrison and his wife, Audrey, in Ellsworth, Wisconsin.  

 Leon and Audrey Morrison - photo by Anne Queenan

Leon and Audrey Morrison - photo by Anne Queenan

From nostalgic days of the one-room country school house, Leon’s lessons in math and geometry served him well through two careers - first, as a computer programmer/systems analyst, and later in the profession of farming. He and Audrey, a Red Wing, MN native, have worked together and lived a successful life, raising four sons, and managing two farms.  Many lessons and accomplishments in agriculture have been earned. For 30 years, while Leon held a full-time job in the Twin Cities in information technology, Audrey kept things going on the farm, feeding and managing the young sows on a farrow-to-finish pork farm with the help of her sons. They managed to also buy Leon’s parents’ farm, where his father historically plowed with horses for seven years, growing oats to feed the calves and horses. Fields were rotated with hay, then, and corn grew on the least amount of acreage.

Recently, Morrison wrote to his high school classmate, Marilyn Albrecht, a founding member of Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) to tell her how farmers can join the efforts to be part of the solution for the growing sediment in Lake Pepin.

Leon Morrison is a member of LPLA and the 2014 Conservation Farmer of the Year recipient in Pierce County. Today, he takes great measures to see that his topsoil stays put and does not eventually end up in Lake Pepin through practicing No-Till farming.

 Photo by Anne Queenan

Photo by Anne Queenan

 Photo by Anne Queenan

Photo by Anne Queenan

Wisconsin’s streams and tributaries are a source of sediment and erosion for Lake Pepin’s stretch along the Mississippi River. In Ellsworth, Morrison farms part of the 221 square miles that drains into the Trimbelle River and Isabelle Creek watershed - part of the Lower Chippewa River Basin, as well as acreage that drains to a dry coulee entering near Bay City.

 “We need to keep the soil up here, on the hills,” he said.  The topsoil has the most organic matter. When the organic matter in the top soil is lost, says Morrison, it exposes the soil with extremely poor infiltration which erodes easily. “You don’t need topsoil in Lake Pepin.”

The estimated annual soil loss from cropland fields in the Trimbelle River watershed is 2.9 tons per acre and 4.6 tons per acre in the Isabelle River watershed.

"In-stream monitoring is definitely needed in these rivers to give us a better idea of how much sediment is being transported," added Rodney Webb, Pierce County Land Conservation Department Director.

 Photo by Anne Queenan

Photo by Anne Queenan

For Morrison, with highly erodible land, it’s a matter of productive farming, with less input cost, soil erosion control, improved soil structure and health, and more water-holding capacity.  Ten years ago, instead of retiring, Morrison introduced this new farming practice of No-Till on 300 acres of his rolling land of corn, soybeans, hay (alfalfa and orchard grass) and cover crops. Instead of plowing to remove old crops, he went straight to planting the new ones through the residue of the previous crops.  He learned that the old tradition of horizontal plowing compresses the soil together, for example, moldboard and chisel plowing; disking; and soil finishing. This had been limiting deeper water movement and root growth bringing poorly structured soil to the surface without the residue on top for protection, and disturbing the soil biology.   

In 2007, a neighboring Bay City farmer and two agronomists stopped by to sell corn seed.  This was a no-till farmer who encouraged Morrison to plant no-till corn on a hayfield where the hay had been killed with Roundup followed by an application of manure.  Morrison wasn’t sure the planting would work through the manure, yet, he found that his row cleaners effectively moved the manure. The results and yield were excellent. As technology has evolved, it’s become easier to plant these crops without tearing up the topsoil, he reports. The current corn and soybean farmer who now rents from Morrison uses a John Deere no-till planter. 

Morrison avidly keeps up with current findings through seminars and a publication, “No-Till Farmer,” by Lessiter Publications, which is available for browsing on Rod Webb’s desk at the NRCS office in Ellsworth. Through his reading, he has learned that for every acre of No Till, water retention is increased four-fold.

 Photo by Anne Queenan

Photo by Anne Queenan

Soil erosion has reduced substantially, he reports.  Instead, he enjoys a top soil with residue and a healthier organic mix with improved infiltration of water.  The Morrisons are not alone.  “If you drive from Maiden Rock to Plum City, ninety percent of the farmland is No-Till,” said Morrison, which is promising.

Yet, there’s room for more progress.

 Photo by Anne Queenan

Photo by Anne Queenan

 “We gotta get more incentives for no-till farming,” he said.  “When you do no-till farming, you significantly reduce the surface run-off and erosion.”

In September, Morrison found he shared an appreciation for the perennial, alfalfa, and the desire to incentivize conservation practices with the main speaker at a recent Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance Community Meeting, scientist Shawn Schottler. Schottler cautioned, however, that No Till won’t get the job of reducing the nutrients and sediment in the water done alone.

“More than 50% of sediment comes from non-field sources - streambanks, bluffs, ravines - so even if we reduce field erosion by a sizable amount, we would still have a lot of sediment come to Pepin,” reported Schottler.  Much of this is due to altered hydrology.  “We are eroding the streambanks faster now than we used to,” said Schottler. To slow the water down, streambank erosion needs to slow down.  

“Turns out, the reason we speed up water is because we have lost depressional areas in perennial vegetation.  So, the same things that we put back on the landscape to hold sediment on the field will hold water or evaporate water,” Schottler said, “therefore slowing down the water.”

Meanwhile, the Morrisons welcome visitors who want to see how No – Till works.   Leon recently enjoyed watching some children digging beneath the lumps in his dirt, discovering a world of healthy earthworms busy at work. If you would like to visit the Morrison Farms and take a tour, Leon and Audrey would welcome you warmly.  Just call at 715.594.3691.

 Photo by Anne Queenan

Photo by Anne Queenan