SODA SPRINGS, Idaho — When Dan Lakey is stumped about how to handle a problem in one of his fields, he sends a group text message to several other young farmers in the area.
For example, there were the mysterious caterpillars he discovered last June feeding on Canadian thistles. In response to a picture he sent with his text, another young farmer, Eli Hubbard, identified them as painted lady caterpillars, informing Lakey they were beneficial and would eat only weeds.
Lakey and about six others who participate in the group texts reason the next generation of farmers faces a great challenge in adapting their operations to new technology and the latest trends in improving farm sustainability. So for the past few years, they’ve been working together and pooling their knowledge to find an advantage.
“We share articles or videos or things we see in our fields,” said group member Jake Ozburn.
They also meet regularly for breakfast and frequently assess each other’s fields. Ozburn, for example, showed the group crop damage caused by army worms and brown wheat mites to familiarize them with the symptoms.
“We’d just load up into trucks about once a month, and we’d look at different fields and different equipment we would use,” added 30-year-old Cody Cole. “Somebody would see something that the others wouldn’t see.”
Improving soil health has emerged as the central theme. They’ve acquired compaction meters, penetrometers and other devices to assess soil traits during their field trips, but Lakey insists the simplest tool is still the best — a shovel. For Christmas, he bought family and friends shovels for digging in fields and assessing soil and root structure.
“I’ll admit, five years ago we would drive by all of our fields and maybe walk around the edge, but I never got out and dug in the soil,” Cole said. “Once we started these crop tours, it was like, ‘Wow, I’ve probably left a lot on the table because I haven’t done this.’”
The collaboration traces back to 2012, when Lakey and Ozburn began consulting one another. A couple of years later, Cole joined their discussions. The text group has further expanded during the past two seasons, and now includes a Delta, Utah, grower who frequently lectures on soil health.
Lakey is the group’s risk taker, having eliminated tillage on much of his farm and substituted a machine that stimulates soil microbe activity with tractor exhaust, in lieu of fertilizer, on half of his acres.
Cole has made calculated changes, planting a series of test plots this summer to evaluate cover crop blends for cattle forage and soil-health benefits under his region’s dryland conditions.
Ozburn considers himself to be the “hardest to convince on newer ideas.”
“When we try stuff, we try it on a smaller scale,” Ozburn said. “Dan is the go-big kind of guy.”
By sharing knowledge of the experiments they’re conducting across their collective acres, Lakey believes he and his friends stand to discover best farming practices much faster.
“One thing I’ve learned is there’s no right way to do it, and everybody farms different,” Lakey said.
Holly Rippon-Butler, with the New York-based National Young Farmers Coalition, sees a trend of young farmers around the country using modern technology to network and share information.
“They are really yearning to find ways they can create community in these rural areas,” she said.