A fixture of the Nebraska no-till community died Sunday at age 67.
Dan Gillespie, who no-tilled about 700 acres of land near Battle Creek, Neb., starting in the mid-1980s, served as the Nebraska specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Gillespie passed away surrounded by family at his home in Bennington, Neb., according to an online obituary. Doctors had diagnosed Gillispie with ALS following his retirement in 2020, according to a biography published by the Dan Gillespie Soil Health Fund.
Gillespie, who spoke at field days in Nebraska, represented the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District of Norfolk, Neb., when the group received a 2004 No-Till Innovator Award in the No-Till Organizations category.
A 2008 "What I Learned From No-Till" essay outlined Gillespie's philosophy about farming. He described a dry spring in 1986 when a "light went on."
"Incorporating herbicide with a field cultivator dried out the soil about 4 inches deep, way below the seed zone," he wrote. "So we delayed planting, hoping for a replenishing rain. Meanwhile, a neighbor who ridge-tilled got his crop in and up in 5 days while we sat on our hands waiting for Mother Nature to cooperate."
While that quote gives the impression of a farmer eager to work rather than wait for weather, Gillespie knew the virtues of life outside the farm field, too. He developed a network among growers with a similar philosophy, and learned from decades of observation.
"After observing my no-till fields for more than 2 decades — as well as thousands of new acres transitioning to no-till — evidence is strong that corn and soybeans are not a diverse enough rotation for success," he wrote. "We can’t grow crops only 4 or 5 months of the year and expect to build the soil. We need to emulate Mother Nature by planting a cover crop to fill the interval between harvest and planting of our commercial crops."
Gillespie was also known as "Dan The Tree Man" in Battle Creek, after 30 years of classroom acorn-planting demonstrations with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students in local schools.
More than that, Gillespie valued his family and five daughters.
"On a humorous note, as a 30-plus-year-old single guy, my priorities were not sitting on a tractor tilling the soil," he wrote in 2008. "So, cutting my time in the field by more than half was a big seller for me. Now married with five daughters, the time I save is much more precious. Quality of life becomes a big incentive to never go back to tillage."
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations to be made to the soil health foundation that bears Gillespie's name.
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