Anderson: Farmer stays informed, innovative about agriculture

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2014 - 12:50 AM
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Tony Thompson and his wife, Sonya Buller, take pride in a field of virgin prairie they cultivate for wildflower and other seeds. Soybeans and corn are Thompson’s primary crop, but seeds from the prairie are sold to state and federal conservation agencies, and conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy.

Photo: Photos by Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com,

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Though raised on the farm where he lives today, amid thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, Tony Thompson is anything but a homebody. ¶ Educated over many winters at Montana State University, where he earned an agronomy degree, Thompson, 58, remains steadfastly curious about the world at large, especially about farms and farming, and he travels widely to observe varying agricultural productions.

In what some might consider a contradiction, Thompson is both a wildlife lover and a conservationist, while remaining unapologetic about being a row-crop farmer — and as such, is part of the industrial agricultural machine that blankets the Midwest in nearly endless fields of corn and soybeans.

“There are tradeoffs to everything,” he said, “and to feed the number of people we need to feed, at the prices people want to pay, we need every farmer of all times to be engaged: small, large, organic and conventional large-scale.”

As Thompson spoke the other day, he tooled around his farm not far from Windom, in the southwest part of the state. His cropland is largely flat, black and fertile, and through his pickup’s bug-covered windshield, corn and soybeans shimmered beneath a midday sun.

Like much of the rest of the state, this part of Minnesota was inundated with rain in June. But runoff from Thompson’s 2,800 acres was minimal, because his crops are ridge-tilled, meaning residue from last year’s crop lies between the planted rows, gathering and filtering rain where it falls.

Compared to conventional tillage, ridge-tilling requires less fertilizer and reduces erosion. Thompson began the practice in 1990.

“Ridge tillage is also as cost-efficient as conventional tillage,” he said.

In a further attempt to reduce runoff into nearby Fish Lake, Thompson buffers his croplands with Conservation Reserve Program and hay acres, and he filters subsurface runoff from some of his land through an underground woodchip bioreactor.

Horace Thompson, Tony’s great-great-grandfather, established the family’s Willow Lake Farm in 1873. Surrounding the home today is an expansive lawn dotted with mature shade trees, and beyond these, small, shallow lakes and waterways divided by vegetative buffer strips.

About 8 miles from the farmhouse sprawl a few hundred acres of native prairie, its Indian grass, big and little bluestem, coneflowers and other plants colorfully in bloom.

Thompson harvests seeds from the rare plants and sells them to state and federal conservation agencies, and private conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy.

All of these non-production acres are managed as a nature preserve, off-limits to hunting, and have been for more than a half-century.

“We like to see wildlife,” said Thompson, himself a hunter.

• • •

Last winter, I invited about 25 state conservation leaders, including a sampling of farmers and others involved in agriculture, to an afternoon discussion about topics of mutual interest.

I had not met Thompson previously. But based on his reputation as a colorful, outside-the-box agricultural thinker and tinkerer, I invited him and hoped he would attend. He did, driving through a blizzard to make the north Minneapolis meeting.

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  • Tony Thompson’s equipment building houses the latest machinery designed to minimize the effect on his lands of corn and soybean farming. However, Thompson never buys new equipment, preferring to minimize financial outlay by purchasing good used combines, tractors and other gear.

  • Hay fields and other buffer crops that border Tony Thompson’s corn and soybean fields minimize runoff from the lands, helping to keep the watershed clean. Here, a stream that drains his and other bordering lands is checked for clarity.

  • Strip-till farming, shown here, is practiced by Tony Thompson’s neighbor, while Thompson practices ridge-till cultivation. Both aim to minimize soil loss and runoff from agricultural lands by minimizing soil tilling. Here, soybeans are planted directly into corn residue from the previous year’s crops.

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