Farming is all Al Miron wanted to do after high school. As one of nine children, there just wasn’t room on his family’s operation. So Miron became the first person in his family to pursue education beyond high school. In 1969 he received his Ph.D. in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota.
“The fickle finger of fate has played a large role in the way things turned out in my life,” says the 2016 Eminent Farmer/Rancher, a third-generation farmer. “I also believe in a divine guiding source and know that things often happen for a purpose.”
Early in his college career, Miron ran out of funds, so he returned to his family’s Hugo, Minn., farm to work. At the time, he didn’t have a timeline for returning to school. The following quarter he was back in the classroom and didn’t look back. “It gave me the incentive I needed to return to school, and I guess I was maturing and realized education was more important than I’d given it credit before,” he says, adding that small scholarships helped him pay tuition. Today, Miron donates to scholarship programs at South Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.
Ultimately, it was his degree which enabled Miron to farm. For nearly 40 years he worked as a livestock nutritionist for CHS and Land O’Lakes.
Shortly after moving to Sioux Falls to begin his work with CHS, he saved up enough to purchase a farm near Crooks. Starting small with 160 acres and no equipment, Miron leased the land. In the fall of 1975 he tilled his fields. Spring 1976 he planted his first crop. It turned out to be a drought year. “It was a disaster crop,” Miron recalls.
“It got me thinking of ways I could preserve moisture. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we had a situation where we almost always experienced some lack of moisture during the summer and too much moisture in the spring and fall which created erosion. I knew it wasn’t sustainable.”
Along with working full-time as an animal nutritionist, farming on the side and raising his family – Miron and his wife, Joan, have three children – Miron dedicated himself to developing a sustainable solution.
He started implementing minimal tillage in 1977, moving to completely no-till practices in 1988.
“I was no-tilling before it was cool, so to speak. I read everything I could on the topic, but there wasn’t much information on it. I had to come to a lot of my own conclusions through trial and error,” Miron explains.
Improvements he witnessed in his fields kept him motivated. “I saw results right away. I observed good performance in the crops, preservation of moisture and lack of erosion,” he says.
Growing up a farm kid and the research background he had from graduate and doctorate work helped Miron.
“My educational background and my interest in agriculture production combined to help me,” he says. “As a rule, I try to learn something, if not every day, as often as possible. We need to stay alert and attuned to what is happening to reason to our best ability.”
Nearly 30 years of no-tilling later, his fields continue to yield exciting results. “Today, my organic matter is 4.5 percent. When I first started farming in 1976 it was on average 2.4 in most areas of the field and as low as 0.7 percent in other areas.”
As a benchmark, Miron explains that 125 years ago, before the native prairies of South Dakota were tilled under, organic matter in the soils was about 5.5 to 6 percent.
Organic matter is valuable. Miron explains that for every 1 percent increase in organic matter, an additional 1,000 pounds of nitrogen is present in the soil. As for the soil’s ability to retain moisture? For every 1 percent increase in organic matter, the soil is estimated to retain an additional half to 1-inch. Currently, Miron’s soil is capable of holding 1 to 2 inches of water and making it available to the crop.
“That’s a big deal in South Dakota,” he says.
Miron didn’t keep the good news to himself. Since retirement in 2009, he has advocated for improved soil health, sharing his knowledge with growers across South Dakota, the U.S. and internationally. His Crooks farm is host to tours and SDSU research projects annually.
“The soil is not just a spot to anchor roots and provide mineral nutrients to a plant. There is interaction with biological health in the soil between the bacteria and fungi that provide nutrients to the plant. If we increase that bioactivity, we have potential for greater productivity,” Miron explains.
Miron is a founding board member of the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, on the boards for the Southeast Research Farm and the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council. He is a volunteer with the South Dakota Voices for Soil Health, the American Society of Animal Science (he is a registered Professional Animal Scientist) and instrumental in helping the NRCS implement the South Dakota Soil Health Mentor program.
“It’s important for all of us to make some contribution to society. Soil health is the area I feel I can work in and have some influence,” explains Miron. “To see conservation practices adapted by more farmers gives me the satisfaction that we will have something to leave for future generations.”