Conservation Innovation Grant Case Studies: Agricultural roots bring Eric home to Nebraska

Cora Fox contributed to this blog.

This case study was supported by Conservation Innovation Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Center's work through this grant features beginning, women, and veteran producers who use conservation in their farming operations. Stay tuned for information regarding upcoming webinars for beginning, women, and veteran farmers and ranchers. Check out the two-page case study here.

Though he’s only been farming for around 10 years, agriculture is in Eric Thalken’s blood.

Originally from Ogallala, Nebraska, Eric spent part of his childhood in The Cornhusker State, and part of it in The Keystone State—Pennsylvania. He grew up in a family with a conventional farm mindset. Upon returning to Nebraska, Eric studied agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, then became a sales agronomist.  

When Eric began his life in agriculture, he read a book called “The Biological Farmer” by Gary Zimmer, which changed his outlook on farming.

“The book, the ideas, made sense to me,” he said. “I emailed Gary, and that turned into me moving to his farm to work and gain experience. People passionate about agriculture from around the world visited this farm, and I got to be one of them.”

He also read Acres USA, a publication focused on organic and sustainable and out-of-the-box farming. This helped shape his mindset around the connectedness of farming and human and ecological well-being.

Today, Eric manages a farm for his wife’s extended family near Dorchester, Nebraska, which has transitioned to 100 percent organic production. More than 2,000 acres of irrigated farmland produces corn, yellow peas, soybeans, and forages. The entire farm is strategically cover cropped and may host as many as 1,000 head of custom-grazed cattle per year. According to Eric, cover cropping in this fashion produces as much as 85 percent of the farm’s nitrogen fertility in addition to providing a major weed control benefit.

“The major focus of my crop management is manipulating soluble carbon to soluble nitrogen ratios, both above and within the soil environment,” said Eric. “This is performed by cover crop variety and mix selection, grazing management, both on- and off-farm manure applications, timing, and method of cover crop termination.”

Eric is a believer in conservation practices, though he ended up using them by default.

“I feel it is the best way to manage the farm I’m on,” he said. “When you farm with diversity and biology in mind, conservation falls into place.”

And, right now, managing farmland is exactly what he wants to do.

“I’ve thought about buying my own farmland, but I’ve recognized that I couldn’t do all of the important jobs that are part of a successful farming operation,” he said. “Being an equity partner in the operation I manage is where I want to be. I’m in a good place to help the farm grow.”

For those looking to get into farming, or who have just started, Eric says everyone makes mistakes, some more costly than others, but offers advice for success.

“Make yourself a valuable asset to somebody,” he said. “Older farmers are looking for an exit, and if you can prove your skills to them and learn from them over a few years, you will likely face greater success and more opportunity in farming.”

This material is based upon work supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA, under number 69-3A75-17-46. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USDA. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.​