Tony Lem on his farm near Slater.

Tony Lem says he leans on information from ISA research trials to make decisions on his farm. (Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)

Member spotlight: Tony Lem

June 17, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

After years of working on the railroad and moving around, Tony Lem got the opportunity to farm. With assistance from the Iowa Soybean Association, he feels like he’s on the right track.

Lem found he was interested in farming by working on a neighbor’s farm. He didn’t grow up on a farm; his mom was a teacher and his dad was a publisher.

He took ag classes at nearby North Polk to supplement his on-farm learning experience.

“I tried my hand at livestock—cattle, hogs and horses. But I always loved the farm,” Lem said.

Mechanically inclined, Lem started working for the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad as a mechanic while still in high school. He went on to Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) for diesel technology, and then earned a degree in ag systems technology from Iowa State. Walking through a career fair at Iowa State, Lem was looking for the next step in his career.

And that’s when a Union Pacific recruiter saw Lem walking around in his overalls—literally dressed for a job on the railroad.

“So, the railroad literally dragged me back,” Lem said.

Thus began his career with the railroad. He oversaw teams of mechanics whose job was to keep the railway line functioning at a high level. He spent nearly 5 years in locomotive shop management and another 4 years in train management.

His wife, Ashlea, obtained her Doctorate of Nursing Practice degree while they were living in Omaha, and the two decided that the railroad wouldn’t be ideal for raising a family.

“The railroad is no way to raise a family,“ Lem said. “Direct quote from the guy who hired me: ‘You’re going to live like a ping pong ball. If you need it to survive it will come from the vending machine in your office. If it doesn’t come from there, you don’t need it.’ ”

Back to the farm

Tony, Ashlea and their two daughters, Avery and Molly, now reside on their farm near Slater. Lem farms with his In-laws, Kurt and Lynda Lehman, raising soybeans and corn.  They’ve leaned on the team at the Iowa Soybean Association for research and information to grow better crops.

Working with ISA senior field services program manager Scott Nelson, Lem has compared tillage methods in his fields. He’s put fertilizers head-to-head, and has researched protein levels, cover crops, etc.

Lem has used the results from those on-farm trials to grow a better crop.

“The results of the tillage and row spacing trial were pretty much what we expected,” Lem said.

In the trial, strip tillage proved that it was going to work on their farm.

“Row spacing didn’t make a bit of difference, and it reinforced that strip tillage was going to work. We can keep the spacing and still raise a good crop,” Lem said.

Working with ISA he’s come to also understand the benefits that reduced tillage can do for his soils.

“We focus on high yield, that’s where we make our money. We can do this (strip tillage), reduce our costs and improve soil quality,” Lem said. “I haven’t found much of a downside yet.”

Lem seeks out opportunities for trials with ISA, understanding he can benefit from both on-farm trials and aggregated data analyzed from trials on other farmers’ fields.

“We’re always trying to learn, and that’s a great way to take in a bunch of data. A lot of these are randomized trials you can get a lot of good pertinent data out of them,” he said. “Maybe it (the data) is not pertinent to your area, but it gets you good idea on something that will work or not. In my eyes that alone is worth the checkoff.”

The opportunities to engage with ISA research are plentiful and timely. One such example is the opportunity to test products to destroy volunteer corn in fields hit by the derecho last summer. The hurricane-like winds decimated Lem’s crops in four fields and damaged nine bins. They are rebuilding the site, replacing the damaged bins with three larger bins to make the operation easier to manage.

Conservation efforts

Located in Fourmile Creek Watershed, they’ve implemented several conservation practices over the past two decades to protect water quality and preserve the soil. The ISA aided Tony in understanding how a saturated buffer and bioreactor could work on the farm. Considered new technology at the time, the trials helped update the specifications for the technologies to expand utilization of the technologies on Iowa farms.

It’s the right thing to do. Anytime we’re given an opportunity to have what we have in this area, we have to do what we can to take care of it,” Lem said.

“It’s all a part of continual growth and learning,” Lem said. “If we’re capturing the nutrients, that’s less I have put to down as a fertilizer, and less going into the water. Anything I can do to find efficiencies and improve plant and soil health—it’s all tied together.”

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