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Perennial Diversification

David Knop shares how he started the Midwest’s second-largest blackberry operation on his row-crop farm

Interview by Paul Meyer

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an interview with in the May 2023 Issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

Acres U.S.A. Can you tell us some of the basics of your context — where do you farm? How many acres? What do you grow?

David Knop. I’m in southern Illinois, between Steeleville and Chester, in Randolph County — out in the country. There’s 220 acres on this farm. Fourteen of that is blackberries. And then I farm a total of about 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans. I do cover crops in the offseason when the cash crops aren’t growing. 

My father passed away about four-and-a-half years ago, and that’s when I took over the farm. He did heavy, conventional tillage with the corn and beans. I started changing that from day one, basically. 

With the blackberries, this will be our fifth harvest year. We planted them six-and-a-half years ago. The first full season we didn’t harvest — we just pruned them back to make the root structure stronger. When we started, I was just using conventional fertilizer with pesticides.

Acres U.S.A. Had you been farming before that with your father? 

Knop. I had, but I was pretty much under his direction. I ran a little bit of my own ground, but I hadn’t really gotten involved at that point with watching YouTube videos about soil health, which really changed my mind on that. Because you don’t know what you don’t know.

I took over the farm four years ago. He’d already planted rye in the fall, but he’d always burn it down with glyphosate in the spring. That’s when I started investigating rolling the rye, and letting it go to the anther stage, and planting beans before that. So I started doing that from day one. He already had the rye there, which he used to terminate as soon as the first nice day of spring came along. But I let it go and get five-six feet tall

Acres U.S.A. Would he burn it down and then till, or would he just plant straight into the dead rye?

Knop. He was pretty heavy tillage. He would rotate corn and beans every year, and he’d no-till his beans, but he was always scared to no-till corn. One year he’d had a loss from a mouse problem — the mice ate a lot of the seed — and so that scared him from doing no-till corn. So he would do no-till beans and then conventional-till corn the next year. 

I went complete no-till from the get-go, with the exception of some bottom ground that I’ve been fixing up; heavy tillage over the years had created washouts and low spots and voids in the ground. On that ground, I’ve been going through field by field and laser leveling it to get it back to level. Then I no-till going forward. 

Acres U.S.A. So that first year you already had rye; did you buy a roller-crimper? How did you get a hold of one?

Knop. I actually made one. I bought a McFarlane reel disk — a 44-footer — and it’s got the rolling baskets on it. It has a disk gang on front — it’s made for a minimum-tillage type of application. But I took the disk gages off the front and put roller baskets on, and so it’s like a huge roller. It’s almost 44 foot, but it’s got two sets of rolling baskets on it. It works really well. It’s got two wings on the sides, so it pivots a lot. On some of our land that has high spots and low spots, it kind of forms to the field to get all the rye crimped down. It’s very heavy — it’s probably 20,000 pounds or more.

Acres U.S.A. And you plant your beans green — before you roll the rye.

Knop. Yeah. We plant at the boot stage, and we let the beans emerge, and then we get to the anther stage of the rye — that’s when we roll it. Two years ago, we didn’t have very good success because we got our cereal rye in pretty late, and so a lot of it didn’t come up. But then last year, we did more of an early-season bean variety, so we got the beans out earlier in the fall and got our rye planted. So right now, in February, the rye is very well established across almost all the ground we planted.

Acres U.S.A. What’s your goal for the date for planting rye? 

Knop. September would be good. I think we got the first field by the middle or end of September. We just follow the combine with the drill to plant the cereal rye. Fall is our busy season. Spring we go out there and plant and apply biologicals; fall is really the busy season because we’re pushing to get the crop out and to get the cereal rye put in the ground the same day, preferably.

Acres U.S.A. Are you doing corn the year after the beans? 

Knop. I’m not yet because I’m scared of my nitrogen issue right now. I don’t want to go out and put on anhydrous; I’ve been four years without any synthetics. I don’t want to go back in with anhydrous and ruin my earthworm populations. I have huge earthworm populations now that I didn’t have before. We went out last year and dug up a foot-by-foot-by-six-inch section, and we found 18 to 33 worms in that square foot. And I know that if I go through with anhydrous, I’m gonna ruin that. I’m working with my agronomist to figure out how to address this nitrogen issue. 

So, I’m beans-on-beans right now, but I’ll be changing that to add more diversity. This year I’ve got an even earlier-season variety of soybeans, so I can get some legume cover crops out there. Instead of just going with the cereal rye, it’ll be a diverse six- or seven-way mix.

Acres U.S.A. Yeah, there’s a lot of research that says that if you use a mix of different types of covers, your effects will be compounded. And how will you terminate that? That’s the one nice thing about having a monocrop of rye — you can terminate it all at once, and it’s uniform. 

Knop. Vetch and winter peas will roller-crimp. I’d like to find a mix that I can roller-crimp, because this glyphosate’s gotta go. We’ve got to figure out a way to work without it. It kills a lot of the soil microbes, it accumulates trace minerals, it makes minerals not available to crops. And of course there’s the human health effects. 

So, I would like to find a cover crop mix that I can roller-crimp. And maybe partial winterkill — radishes and turnips will winterkill. But they can do a lot of good in the fall, with that big taproot.

In the program we’re using right now, I drilled a hundred pounds per acre of cereal rye last fall. So I’m hoping I’ll get some weed suppression from that rye all year, but that’s probably not going to happen. I’m hoping I’ll only have to spray it one time. I do get late-season foxtail and some other weeds. 

Acres U.S.A. From compaction, right?

Knop. From compaction, lack of calcium. There’s several things to work on.

Acres U.S.A. You’re getting there, though. You’re on the path, taking the right steps. Are there some other possibilities for crops to put in the rotation beside corn? Does anyone in your area grow anything else? 

Knop. Not really. Our local co-op just buys corn and beans, and some wheat and milo. So I guess wheat would be another choice. We’re limited. But I’ve heard of people creating their own mix of grains and selling it to a dairy. But that’s not something I know a lot about. I don’t think many farmers know a lot about that — direct marketing to get rid of the middle guy 

Acres U.S.A. Yeah, you’d have to have your own silos. Distribution and supply chains actually become a really big limiting factor in trying to move regenerative agriculture forward. If you get into non-GMO and certified, you have to have separate facilities. You’re growing better stuff than other people, because you aren’t using herbicides, but it looks the same at the local co-op.

Knop. Right. You do all this work, and you mix it in with all this other stuff, and it doesn’t really matter. But maybe there are dairy farmers or hog farmers who are buying non-GMO grains. They are out there, from what I’ve been told.

And then you’ve got transportation costs. Our co-op is two miles from our farm. So it’s just very convenient. 

Acres U.S.A. How did you make the decision to get into blackberries — something totally different?

Knop. I did that on my own, after my dad died. I do real estate also, and a guy that used to do appraisal work for me, he had heard about growing blackberries. And he was gonna do it, but he was scared because of the labor aspects — which is a very viable point. But it grabbed my attention, and I just went with it. 

I had ground right around my house. I wanted to be able to see the berries every day and not have to travel very far to inspect them. We decided to do 14 acres, and it’s all right next to my house. It’s some beautiful rolling hills. I just decided to go with my gut, and so I did it.

Acres U.S.A. And what does that all involve? How did you learn how to grow blackberries? It’s a very complicated thing to start up a totally new operation like that.

Knop. Yeah, and there’s not that much information online about how to do this. There’s a little bit here and there, but not like the resources on how to grow soybeans or something like that, obviously. 

The blackberries are on raised beds, and they’ve got dripline irrigation under each bed. We can put fertilizer in with the irrigation water. We tilled everything and formed beds about six inches high and two feet wide. There’s dripline irrigation underneath the bed and a plastic weed barrier on top. The tractor we used had GPS, so each row is perfectly parallel. Then we went through and burned holes with a torch every five feet, and then we took a plug of dirt out of the ground and planted these little plants, just a few inches tall. It took two years before we had a harvest. It’s kind of a tough pill to swallow when you put that much work in and have to wait two years before any potential income comes in…

To read the full interview, purchase a digital or print copy of the January 2023 issue, or subscribe to Acres U.S.A. magazine  for monthly coverage of similar in-depth interviews and educational articles on eco-farming.