(July 19, 1916 – March 13, 2010)
The inventor of ridge-till farming, his method became the most prevalent in Iowa by the end of the 20th century.
Ernest “Ernie” Behn was born on July 19, 1916 in Hampton, Iowa, the son of Rudolph H. and Anna (Dohrmann) Behn. He graduated from Iowa State with a BS in 1940 in animal husbandry. He worked at ISU Extension Service for two years and the U.S. Soil Conservation Service for 25 years. Behn served in the U.S. Air Force for three years during World War II where he became an instructor in operation of aircraft radio equipment to students and instructors, covering all types of radio equipment.
In 1965 he was named “conservationist of the year” by the National Wildlife Federation. In 1975 he was named “no-till farmer of the year” by No-Till Farmer Magazine. Behn is the author of a work on conservation tillage, More Profit with Less Tillage (1977).
Ernest E. Behn’s ridge-till farming system swept across much of the Corn Belt and attracted attention overseas. Behn had been using the system on his farm near Boone for a decade. Higher-ups in the Soil Conservation Service were concerned promotion of his method would undermine traditional conservation methods. He authored his first book, More Profit With Less Tillage, which led to numerous speaking opportunities.
Ridge-tilling involves planting row-crops on a ridge without disturbing other soil in the field. Years later, it would be recognized as saving soil, energy and time. When Behn began, 90% of Boone County was plowed. By the end of the 20th century, 10% of the fields in the county were plowed.
Arizona’s Salt River Valley cotton planters, who used natural ridges for planting and valleys for irrigation, inspired Behn’s tilling system. Behn then turned his fields in that model, creating a planter that cut off the top of the ridge to push the weeds and last season’s residue into the valley, planting seeds on the ridge top.
His system went against conventional beliefs on leaving residue over-winter to control erosion and concerns that the ground would not thaw in spring. Once removed from ridge tops, the residue helped hold water, limiting runoff and when combined with terracing, less silt would fill the terraces.
Behn’s system came at a time of government environmentalists, and his main argument was that if farmers and agriculturalists did not make the change, the government would make it for them. It also cut down on the amount of times a field had to be gone over and even weeded or sprayed.
Behn is honored with Distinguished Service Awards from the Soil Conservation Society of America and the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and as a member of the Ridge-Till Hall of Fame from Fleischer Mfg. Co.
Ernest Behn married Marvel A. Stine in 1943. They had four children: Connie, Dennis, Jerry, and Rebecca. Behn passed away on May 13, 2010.
Ernest E. Behn Papers, RS 21/07/013, University Archives, Iowa State University Library