What Farmers Have Taught Me

By Scott Bestul

 It’s not a world-beater buck, but it’s my Dad’s. And when your father is 82 years old, still climbs up to tree stands, continues to shoot a bow, and works as hard at deer hunting as men half his age, well, the buck doesn’t have to win any contests but the one held in the hearts of a family. As far as the Bestul Clan is concerned, a certain Minnesota 9- point is the biggest whitetail that ever walked the planet.

Dad shot the buck off the corner of a little food plot this past fall, and it was the third mature whitetail that swung through that patch of Imperial BowStand that day. The plot, planted on a log landing created by a timber sale this past spring, is far from large; a truly good archer could shoot the entire plot from the stand we hung. But the Pine Tree Plot — imaginatively named for a huge white pine growing nearby — didn’t have to be big to draw deer. Instead, the small food source accomplished its one and only mission: attracting does throughout the early season and, by default, acting as a buck magnet when the rut kicked in. When a plot you can throw a rock across manages to do everything you wanted it to — and results in a trophy buck my family will treasure forever — it’s cause for celebration. If it sounds like I’m celebrating any kind of personal success, I apologize. The Pine Tree Plot blossomed as a food source only because I saw the bare dirt left by a logger and mumbled, “That might make a good food plot.” The person I said that to happened to be a farmer. And in the course of several seasons my neighbor Alan (the farmer and my bowhunting buddy) has shown me how someone who makes things grow for a living approaches food plots. What follows, then, is what I’ve learned.

Weeds Are Your Enemy

Farmers abhor weeds like Democrats detest a tax cut, and a food plotter should be just as serious about keeping his plantings clean. Alan taught me early that herbicides can work wonders on a plot, even a small spot like the Pine Tree Plot. After we’d selected the site, Alan blitzed the weeds with a liberal dose of Roundup in early summer, followed by another application a week or two before planting in August. Anyone who’s paid attention to today’s modern agriculture recognizes that the days of a weed-choked corn or soybean field are largely gone. By the time we were ready to plant, our dirt was black-soil bare; devoid of nutrient-grabbing invaders. The good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money or buy fancy equipment to achieve a largely weed-free plot. Roundup (and its generic equivalents) is widely available and relatively cheap. And you can spray most plots with an ATV boom sprayer (also getting cheaper) or even a backpack type sprayer like those used by homeowners. Also, by planting plots later in the growing season — we planted the Pine Tree Plot in August — you can often reduce weed competition by tilling after many weed species have germinated for the year. This approach helped our cause tremendously.

Sun Is Your Friend

Getting adequate sunlight to a plot is no problem in some areas, but in others — particularly log landings like the Pine Tree Plot — it represents one of the chief challenges. Granted, the seed types included in a bag of Bowstand will succeed in minimal sunlight, but in virtually every case, the more light you can shine on a plot, the better. Farmers know this like second nature, and Alan made sure that I got my lesson before I tossed the first seed in the ground. The Pine Tree Plot was virtually surrounded by sun-blocking trees. Clear-cutting the area was an option, but not the most attractive one in this case. So we identified a few critical trees that were shading the plot and removed them. In each case, the tree we cut was on the southern side of the plot and shaded our planting during the mid- to late afternoon hours when the summer sun could benefit our plants the most. The trees we removed were also low in timber value (elm, basswood), which wasn’t hard to determine, because the loggers had taken all the good stuff. Felling a few sun-blockers was a no brainer and resulted in enough light to keep our plants thriving.

Machinery Is Good

You can make a fine little plot with nothing more than a steel rake and a whole lot of sweat. But I won’t lie: You can make an even better one with a diesel engine. An increasing number of food plotters are investing in small tractors to do the heavy lifting on plot installation and maintenance (if you doubt this burgeoning market, price one of these nifty little numbers someday; the sticker shock will knock you over). Alas, I can’t afford this investment, but I have neighbors — like Alan — who I can call on to help me out. Alan’s tractor not only made short work of tilling our plot, but he also had a blade that cleared some heavy debris from the plot and expanded its borders. What if you lack the next-door neighbor with machinery? One option is to ask around the neighborhood and find someone who’ll do your heavy lifting. I know several property owners who have knocked on the doors of area farmers and arranged a per-hour fee for doing plot work. One of my close friends pays his neighbor a mere $300 per summer to work three small plots. This computes to a small annual investment for my friend (and a whole of saved labor) and a $40 per hour rate for the farmer. The arrangement satisfies both parties. Obviously rates will vary, but most fees will seem a bargain when you compare them to buying your own tractor.

Commit To The Long Haul

The final lesson I’ve learned from farmers is perhaps the most important: They look at things long-term. Beefing up the corn production in a certain field isn’t a one-shot deal, it’s a commitment. Alan and his dad are some of the best corn and soybean growers in our county (I’m not just bragging up my friends; they actually hold competitions for this stuff, and my buddies have the ribbons to prove their prowess), and they didn’t achieve that success by a “good-enough” attitude. If a field produces 200 bushels of corn one year, they shoot for 210 the next, and they usually make good on their goal. It’s important to note that achieving such success isn’t a matter of cross-your-fingers and- pray-for-rain; it’s a logical, step-by-step process with measurable results. Building pH or inputting adequate fertilizer in a field isn’t done overnight, and there are no quick fixes. I’ve seen this first-hand when Alan and I planted a small plot with Imperial Whitetail Clover a couple of years back. That first season we had the most beautiful clover I’ve ever planted, thanks to soil testing and applications of fertilizer. I was tickled to death with our results, but guess what? The next year the plot grew an even prettier crop. And I expect similar results in the Pine Tree Plot.


I doubt that most food plotters are different than me. I don’t have a ton of money, my free time comes in inconvenient streaks, and my greatest temptation is to step back from a newly planted food plot and say, “Well, that’s a heckuva lot better than nothing.” And indeed it might be. But I also know this much; I got a whole lot better at growing stuff when I started listening to and mimicking the practices of folks who grow plants for a living. Judging from the success we enjoyed at the Pine Tree Plot this past fall, I think it’s a practice I’ll keep repeating.