An excerpt from Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey
“Dead dead dead dead.” Fallon County farmer Jerry Sikorski pointed toward a cement-colored field of his neighbor. “You see the color of that ground? That’s because all the nutrients are gone…it has no soil health!”
Jerry’s hands are huge, but not swollen. They look like the hands of a man six inches taller.
“Okay, now look at this.” He bent down and scooped a handful of soil. He held it to his own nose, his hands looking cartoon-like, and poured some into my hand. “Smell that,” he said.
The soil looked like chocolate cake, almost black, with a firm but tender texture. It smelled like a prairie rainstorm. “See what I’m saying?” Jerry said.
Then he broke the soil apart, revealing an intricate network of tiny roots. “Put that under a microscope, and you’d find thousands of bugs and organisms. Because that’s what gives it that kind of health.”
It was striking, driving across one of the Sikorski fields, how the ground felt more like a golf course than most farm land. Normally, driving over a pasture in Eastern Montana is like riding a roller coaster, with bumps and dips that you don’t see coming. “I like to plant crossways every year too,” Jerry explained. “One year I’ll go north and south, and the next year I’ll go east and west. It levels out the land.”
Over the course of decades, Jerry has devised a unique strategy for farming that involves no cultivation, crop rotation, planting cover crops, and small sections of pollination crops, designed for the sole purpose of attracting more bugs. Jerry is a believer in the process of interaction between insects, animals, and crops. He leaves a wide swath of wheat unmown every time he harvests for the insects and critters.
Jerry was born and raised on this very farm, fifteen miles south of Baker. He’s a Vietnam vet, a man who served in the National Guard for over twenty years as a helicopter pilot, and who moved back to the farm as a young man. He’s completely self-taught, although if you suggest that to him, he’ll dismiss it. “I’ve been to a lot of talks and conferences through the years.”
Jerry’s grandfather homesteaded this land in 1911, coming to Montana after migrating from Poland. Jerry’s dad was one of seven kids, and as with most families those days, they went through a complicated and sometimes contentious competition before he emerged with the farm.
Eventually, his parents had five boys, of which Jerry was the youngest. Although there was nothing remarkable about the farm, they managed to survive, and his father showed some flashes of innovation, like being one of the first to incorporate. Ironically, this decision ended up turning on Jerry’s father when he got involved with a younger woman and the rest of the family voted Dad out of the corporation.
Jerry’s oldest brother took over, and when Jerry moved back, he worked for his brother while serving his time in the Guard.
“My back is a mess after flying helicopters for twenty-six years,” he said.
Jerry was refreshingly honest about the dynamics in his family, saying that his brother had been difficult to work for. But his brother became too old to run the place, and Jerry was the natural choice to take over. As is often the case, he was the only one interested.
Jerry is always experimenting, so it’s hard to reduce his method to a simple routine. But there are a few consistent truths. Instead of plowing, Jerry uses a drill that buries the seed below the surface of the cover crops, which he never clears. The cover crop then provides warmth and a natural fertilizer. Plus it holds all the nutrients below the surface.
He sometimes plants an entire field with a blend of seeds designed to form this cover crop. To many, spending the money for crops he will not harvest seems like a waste, but it is this long-term vision that has developed such healthy soil.
We passed the neighbor whose field Jerry ridiculed, and Jerry pointed at the neighbor’s tractor, a monstrosity with tracks like an army tank. “Imagine how much dirt that thing is throwing up into the air, and how much fuel he uses just to run that thing for a day!”
I asked whether any of his neighbors have come around to his way of thinking.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “This guy won’t admit it, but he never plows anymore, and he started planting crossways a few years ago..”
Technically, the Sikorski farm doesn’t qualify as organic, which sort of makes a mockery of the whole concept. They occasionally use pesticides and fertilizer, so they don’t meet the standards of organic crops. This doesn’t matter to Jerry. He is much more interested in creating soil that will continue to become more healthy with each passing year.