Some know Dave Brandt as a pioneer in no-till, cover crops and soil health. He was a mentor for many farmers and a friend to many more.
Others outside the farming world knew him from a popular meme with a photo of Brandt is his trademark bib overalls and baseball cap, standing before a field of corn, that reads “It ain’t much but it’s honest work.”
Brandt was also a husband, father, grandfather and a “genuine human being,” according to one friend.
Brandt, of Carroll, Ohio, a national leader in regenerative farming practices, died May 21 from injuries sustained in a car crash May 18 in Illinois. He was 76.
He led by example, practicing what he preached about soil health at events across the country and welcoming hundreds of people onto his Fairfield County farm for an annual field day. He also operated Walnut Creek Seeds, a cover crop seed business that he ran with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
Brandt grew up in agriculture, working on his grandfather’s farm. In high school, he milked cows and managed a farrow-to-finish swine operation, according to a Farm and Dairy story on Brandt from 2016.
After high school, he served as a Marine in Vietnam. Shortly after he returned home from the war, his father was killed in a tractor accident. The family was forced to sell the farm, and David and his wife, Kendra, had to start over as tenant farmers.
Brandt was an early adopter of no-till and using cover crops, mostly out of necessity. In 1971, with no tillage equipment to speak of, they took a chance on no-till, and later cover crops, as a way of grain farming without all the equipment. In the early years, he also raised Charolais cattle and pigs in a farrow-to-finish operation.
He started using cover crops in 1978 as a way to break up soil compaction. Other farmers were skeptical, even critical of Brandt’s “farming in the weeds,” he called it. But the proof was in the pudding, as they say.
Over the years, Brandt built up the organic matter on his home farm to an average of 8.7%. He stopped using fungicides and insecticides. He significantly reduced the need for fertilizer. His corn yields were about 185 bushels per acre, with soybean average between 65 and 82 bushels per acre.
Recently, he’d been working with a professor at Ohio State University South Centers to study nutrient density in crops and the connection to soil health, said Randall Reeder, a friend of Brandt’s through the Ohio No-Till Council.
“He was always pushing the envelope,” Reeder said.
Brandt was also a devoted family man and Christian. He was a leader in everything he did, including in his faith community, said Jay, Brandt’s son. Most recently, Brandt attended Believers Bible Church, in Lithopolis, Ohio.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Kendra, to whom he was married for 54 years. She died in November 2020.
Brandt is survived by two children, Jay (Ann) Brandt and Amy (Gregg) Brock; and six grandchildren, Chris, Isaac, Matthew and Therese Brandt and Ethan and Sarah Brock.
Jay said his father always supported him through his endeavors when he was in school. When he was in 4-H, doing livestock projects, Jay said his father would ask what he needed help with but wouldn’t force his opinions on his son.
One time, Jay was milking dairy cattle by hand for a 4-H project, so his dad bought him an old vacuum pump milker to make things easier. The pump needed some work, but it was a project the father-son pair took on together to repair it.
Chris said his grandparents would visit his school growing up for career day, and bring a piglet with them for his classmates to see.
“They had a lot of fun with that,” he said.
Chris grew up in the Akron area, but he spent a week each summer on his grandparent’s farm in central Ohio, helping them with their market garden. Dave and Kendra sold their homegrown produce at farmers markets three nights a week for 15 years. The extra income helped out in the summers while Kendra was off from her job teaching elementary school.
Chris enjoyed working and playing on his grandfather’s farm, but he had no idea how big of a deal Brandt was until he was an adult. Chris said he’d gone to college for chemical engineering, but it wasn’t working out for him. He took a semester off to work on the family farm. That’s when he felt the connection with his grandfather’s work, seeing the similarities between chemistry and mixing cover crops.
It wasn’t until the National No-Till Conference in 2018 that he realized his grandfather’s celebrity status in the farming world.
“So, there’s a reason he has so many plaques on the wall,” Chris said.
“He was very proud of his accomplishments, but that’s not what he relied on for who he was,” Jay said, of his father.
He mentored many people through the years, not just in farming. Jay recalls his father taking in children in the community who needed a fatherly influence. He’d invite them to work on the farm with him, but that’s not what it was about.
Brandt was a founding partner of Understanding Ag, LLC, an agricultural consulting company, and the non-profit Soil Health Academy, along with Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta and Allen Williams. He also served as president of the Ohio No-till Council for 14 years.
For all his accomplishments and contributions to the no-till farming community, Brandt wasn’t one to keep secrets, said Steve Groff, a soil health consultant based in southeast Pennsylvania. Groff said he shared the bill with Brandt at least a dozen times over the years at events across the country and became friends with him.
“He was friendly, very willing and eager to share how to make cover crops and no-till successful,” Groff said. “He took time to answer people’s questions.”
Brandt had a way of connecting with people, particularly other farmers, when he spoke.
“He changed people’s minds,” said Gabe Brown, in a statement from Understanding Ag. “His ability to ‘entertain’ while educating was unparalleled, making people laugh even while questioning the way they farmed. He was truly a joy to listen to.”
Though Brandt was seen as the expert in the field, he was still teachable, Groff said. He recalled a time about 20 years ago that he challenged Brandt to mix cover crop species. Groff said he remembers Brandt pushing back on the idea initially, but later trying it.
“That’s pretty good, that’s pretty good,” Brandt said to Groff, when he visited Brandt’s farm to see the results.
“He was a teacher and educator, but he was willing to learn,” Groff said.
A private graveside service will be held for Brandt. There will be two upcoming public memorials: June 2 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Dwayne R. Spence Funeral Home, 650 West Waterloo Street, Canal Winchester, Ohio; and June 3 from 1 to 6 p.m., a Celebration of Life at Brandt Farm, 6100 Basil Western Road, Carroll, Ohio.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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