There’s a huge difference between dirt and soil, Zach Louk notes.
Dirt is what you wipe off your feet when you come home after a long day’s work.
Soil is what will sustain farms for future generations.
One of Louk’s mandates is to work with producers near and far to help replenish their soil with nutrients.
He does so as a salesman for Green Cover Seed, which opened a location in the former Tramec building in Iola earlier this year.
Louk and Caleb Berns, site manager, spoke during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday with the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce, Iola Industries and other local officials.
They gave a brief rundown of what the company offers, and how cover crops have become a vital tool for farmers and ranchers to keep their farmland healthy.
A cover crop is one that’s grown specifically to prepare the ground rather than growing a specific grain or food and can be clover, green beans, peas, radishes or any combination of the above.
Cover crops are grown instead of burning off and disking land once cash crops are harvested.
The different seeds offer a number of benefits, from controlling weeds, preventing erosion and building up nutrients, Louk said: all with the goal of generating ecosystems in the soil.
That’s why much of what Louk’s duties incorporate education.
The concept of using cover crops as part of a no-till practice is still a relatively new concept, he noted.
“Everybody knows how to plant corn and soybeans,” he said. “But when we go to mixing cover crops together, most of them look at us like they’re in the dark. What we’re trying to do is build biology and fungi into the soil.”
GREEN COVER Seed began operations in 2008 and 2009 by brothers Keith and Brian Berns in Nebraska. Caleb Berns is Brian’s son.
The brothers received a federal grant to experiment with cover crops.
“It went really well, and they saw the potential it had for us, for our neighbors and for our potential clients,” Berns said. “They knew pretty quickly there was going to be a need if this catches on, and not a lot of other companies were around to fill that need.”
In Green Cover Seed’s first year of operations, the Bernses sold roughly 40,000 lbs. of seed — enough to fill a semi trailer.
Within 10 years, that annual sales figure topped 27 million pounds.
“We’ve grown from a single building and a couple of trucks and five guys — mostly my family — to what we have today,” Berns said.
Now, Green Cover Seed has 40 employees in Nebraska, another five in the Iola plant, plus more growth anticipated farther south into Oklahoma.
“We’re just trying to figure out how to navigate this coronavirus thing,” Berns said. “It’s challenging at times to open a new plant, but it’s been good so far.”
The company’s introduction to Allen County came through its relationship with Natural Ag Solutions, which specialized on — among other things — non-genetically modified soybeans and cover crops.
Louk, a Moran native, joined Natural Ag Solutions out of college, and soon became immersed in cover crops and the benefits they offered.
Green Cover Seed eventually purchased a portion of Natural Ag Solutions, leading the company to seek a spot nearby.
They found it with the help of Iola Industries, which had recently assisted Tramec with its relocation elsewhere in Iola.
The 54,000-square-foot building will be filled with various seeds, grown regionally and from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere across North America.
“There’s no way we could grow all of the seed ourselves,” Berns noted.
THE COMPANY also is eager to become ingrained with the community through other efforts.
Berns and Louk spoke about milpa gardens, a practice in which 70 species of plants are mixed together and planted as one.
“What that does is create a thriving ecosystem a garden needs,” Louk explained.
The produce is then typically donated to folks in the community.
Louk and Berns already have reached out to FFA chapters in the area, and hope to eventually work with Iola officials to help develop something similar in vacated flood lands in the south part of town. Thrive Allen County CEO Lisse Regehr, who was in the audience, expressed interest in being a part of the conversation as well.
Green Cover Seed also has a 16-acre plot of land near Moran with different crops that will be used to instruct others about the benefits those plants offer.
Green Cover Seed is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and can be reached at (402) 469-6784.