Innovation Grant Spotlight: Hicks family brings science home to the farm

(Photo:  The Hicks family, who received the Innovation Grant, in order—David Hicks, Adam Hicks, Brian Hicks, Michelle Hicks, Madelynne Hicks, Mariah Hicks, Mercedes Hicks and in front is Stephen Hicks.)

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The 2017 Innovation Grant Program is well underway, with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) investing more than $250,000 in 23 farmer-led projects focused on conservation. Throughout the summer and fall we have been highlighting ongoing projects focused on how to better manage nitrogen and protect water quality.

Michelle and Brian Hicks have seen times of plenty and times of scarcity in their 27 years of farming. Michelle looked at the long-term picture of rising input costs, lower crop prices and narrowing margins, and she wondered whether in-sourcing their crop science could help cut costs on their farm in Tracy, Minn.

She heard about the Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s Innovation Grant Program and thought this would be the perfect way to round up the proper testing equipment and pick up the know-how to become their own in-house crop consultants.

In addition to providing funds for testing equipment, the grant has also helped fund a day spent at Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories, to watch soil testing using large-scale techniques. The grant also paid for a second set of samples sent to the University of Minnesota to test the accuracy of Michelle’s on-farm sampling process.

Michelle has a chemistry degree from the University of Minnesota, and has worked as an immunologist/virologist, as well as a high school physics, chemistry and biology teacher. Her love of learning spurred her on. If she can come up with a workable system, she wants to share it with other farmers. Her classroom experience taking complex information and breaking it down into easily understood components gives her confidence this can be done. She started with her own family.

Their son, Jakob, 20, a senior at Southwest State University, bringing his love of computers and mapping to the table, was a natural partner for the project.

“Jakob is the mastermind behind this,” Michelle said. “He enjoys the technological aspects of modern day farming. Analyzing data and making maps that are useful for increasing yields and for creating accurate prescriptions are interesting to him.”

Jakob has produced the data analysis results and together they are learning how to make agronomic prescriptions. Jakob has also innovated and built small pieces of equipment to assist in the chemical testing of the soils.

Adam, 12, collected many of the soil samples from the three farm fields that they tested for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Mallory, 9, spent several days working alongside Michelle processing the samples and learning the science behind soil nutrient and pH assay—she took a Grand Champion ribbon at Lyon County fair for her presentation of what she learned.

“We are thinking if we can do this as a family, we can help other families do this. We are big into conservation, wanting to keep the farm viable for generations to come and that’s always close to the front of our minds,” Michelle said. “To make our soil the healthiest it can be is one of our chief goals. I think farmers today are really pretty progressive, and want to learn how to do this, instead of handing it out to others.”

Ultimately, with this more hands-on approach, Hicks believes farmers can make timelier and better decisions in their nutrient management.

Do you have a conservation-minded research project in mind? We are now accepting applications for the 2018 Innovation Grant Program. Find out more at mncorn.org/research-rfps.

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