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Transforming Saline-Sodic Soil: Scott Hamilton's Journey to Sustainable Farming

On this week’s “Resilience Rodeo”, farmer Scott Hamilton tells how, when it comes to saline-sodic soils, you can have your cake and eat it too, but only if you change your mindset on what “productive” means in those spots.

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In south-central South Dakota, 90 miles east of the very center of the state, Scott Hamilton farms with his brother Jeff. They primarily grow corn and soybeans but also have cattle as well as other small animals including pigs, sheep, and poultry incorporated into their operation. The Hamilton’s have been working saline-sodic seep areas on their land for the last 20 years and have learned that the only way to face these areas is hand-in-hand with Mother Nature– seeding them back to perennial grasses and alfalfa and grazing livestock on them. They learned early on that continuing crops and chemical input on these saline seep areas only intensified and expanded their problems.

Scott Hamilton
Scott Hamilton


1) What is the one thing you've done that has been the most important thing to the success of your operation?


The one thing I’ve done that’s been most important to the success of my operation is to change my mindset. Question things and try to change the status quo.


2) Can you recall a moment when the light bulb went on that soil health practices started to make sense to you?


The light bulb went on for me about twenty years ago, when the saline-sodic spots were developing. We kept doing the same management and things weren’t getting any better. So,I’m over here working in a saline-sodic spot, and I looked across the fence and there’s a grass species and flora and fauna growing on the other side, and I’m like– right there, God gave us this. It’s a no-brainer. We’ve just got to work with it. Work with mother nature. Work with God and so forth. That’s when it happened.


3) What surprised you the most when you started implementing soil health practices?


What surprised me the most when we changed our farming practices is that it became very enjoyable. To see we have production, that we’re doing something versus taking away. It was really great to see the pheasant hunting or the hay production, or just the simple fact that we’re growing things in these areas that had not been growing things. That was very pleasant mental health-wise, physically, and economically.


4) What would you say is the biggest misconception people have who are not managing their farming systems for soil health and resiliency?


The biggest misconception is that we can just keep doing the same things and it’s going to go away. It doesn’t, it only gets worse. Part of that is policy, politics, and so forth. But, to do the same thing and expect different results is just borderline insanity.


5) Is there something you'd still like to do that you haven't yet done to improve the salinity situation on your farm?


In terms of trying to improve my salinity environment, we just need to get more diverse plant species there. I think the Hamilton land is only limited by five or six things. I think there’s way more species that could be there. I think if we can create the environment, then we could introduce more, and that might even become the most productive area. It’s all in how you want to look at it.


6) What advice would you have for someone who needs assistance with these saline and sodic spots?


Well, if you are fed up with the saline and sodic spots, the first thing you need to do is change your mindset, cause if you don’t change your mindset, you’re still going to go back to what you always did and that hasn't been working. So, first thing you need to do is change your mindset, realize that hay or grass is a crop, and then market it either through hunting or selling to the farmer or rancher, or selling it to the neighbor that’s going to compost. You know, there’s a lot of possibilities, you’ve just got to open your mindset.


7) When you walk across your croplands or grasslands what do you look for as indicators of soil health?


When I’m walking across my farmland or the grasslands, I’m trying to be more inclusive in my looking. So, I’m not just looking at, ‘Is there weeds, is there not weeds?’ I’m looking at species, how many species, how much insect population, the kind of wildlife I have there.Those are all signals, and if you’re doing things right, they’ll show up. I try to use those signals as an indicator that I’m going down the right path. Sure, you can measure it and test it and so forth, but you’re spending money you don’t have to, there are things in the environment that are telling you. Is the plant species green? Do you have wildlife? Do your animals have a healthy immune system? There are things that you don’t have to pay for that are telling you if you’ve got things going right.


8) What change have you made in the past that you didn’t think would actually work?


Well, you can sort of have your cake and eat it too. I think you can raise cover crops, graze them off, plant crops, and you can almost double crop in a year. You might not have the highest yield, but you might have the most economical. The most economical in terms of buying feed for the livestock. You might not have the highest yield in your crop production,but it is economically efficient, which I didn’t think was possible. I thought we’d get hurt in dry years, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.


9) What indicators do you have that your land is becoming resilient?


The signs that our land is becoming resilient is that we don’t have these fluctuations of high yields, low yields. We’re turning unproductive areas into productive areas. I’d like to think we could increase our organic matter and humus content in our soil so we don’t become so reliant on the weather so we can make it through dry stretches and so forth.


10) What does resilience mean to you?


Resilience means what our forefathers went through. They came out here in a covered wagon, settled in a wide-open prairie, and still stuck around. And that’s what I want to do for our generation and the next generations. We want to set it up so they have the opportunity to have the options I had.


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