While growing up working the family farm near Parker, South Dakota, Desmond Miller learned early on that success in farming requires both passion and persistence.

“I come from a long line of passionate farmers,” he said. “My dad, Claude, was immersed in conventional agriculture, but he was always on the cutting edge, open to new and better ways. I worked with him and learned a lot, and I was really influenced by his passion for farming.”

Desmond inherited that same enthusiasm for farming, and their pervasive passion was matched only by the pride of a job well done after good, hard work.

“My dad had no other hobbies besides farming, so the only thing he did was work,” Desmond said. “Through that experience, I learned from him the idea that work was good, and that’s kind of been a driving force in my life ever since. It’s good to get out there and work hard.”

To illustrate this core belief, Desmond recalls walking soybeans with his dad as a teenager in the 1970s, cutting weeds by hand with a knife. Day after day, they walked up and down rows and rows of soybeans. By the time job was nearing completion, their local Turner County Fair was in full swing, an event the pair had made plans to attend.

“Dad said, ‘After we’re done walking the beans, we’ll go to the fair,” Desmond said. “Well… we had a lot of beans to walk.”

As their shadows elongated ahead of the approaching evening, it was clear they still had a long way to go. Claude made the call – they would not be attending the fair, and they wouldn’t quit until the job was done.

“I saw my friends driving past the field on their way to the fair,” Desmond said. “My thought was, ‘I’m not missing out on the fair. I’m proud to be working in the field alongside my dad.’”

Now Desmond, 63, raises corn and soybeans on roughly 1200 acres. However, Desmond’s path to this point wasn’t always a straight line. The Millers can trace their family history back nearly five centuries to a Swiss-German clan of Mennonites who migrated around Europe in search of religious freedom, eventually emigrating to South Dakota from Russia in 1874. Upon graduating high school, Desmond felt called to continue that religious tradition, attending seminary at the Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisburg, Virginia with the goal of becoming a Mennonite minister. It was here he met a nursing student from New York City by the name of Jean – the woman who would later become his wife, and eventually, his partner on the farm (they met in 1981 and were married the following year). But first, life’s journey brought some curves in the road to navigate.

“When Jean met me, she thought she was going to be marrying a minister,” Desmond said. “As I progressed farther and farther down that road – which I was very committed to, coming from a family of strong religious convictions – I started working for a dairy farmer and found myself enjoying that more and more. Nose to the grindstone, endless hard work. I just love that. I thrive on that.”

So, one weekend in 1984 after Jean finished her senior year, Desmond took her up into the mountains for a deep discussion about the future. The pair decided to return to Desmond’s home in South Dakota to farm and raise dairy cattle.

“I knew nothing about farming, but I had the idea that it was this wonderful thing,” Jean said. “Getting away from crowds, the hustle and bustle of the city, having a garden – not recognizing the demands that it takes to be a farmer, the knowledge that it takes. Farming is very complex – very, very different from what I envisioned. I didn’t understand it until I actually experienced it. Desmond said it would be hard work and that he’d try to involve me in the things that interested me. I wanted to support him, so we made the move back to South Dakota and never looked back. For that, I’ve been very thankful.”

When Desmond returned home upon completing seminary, his father, Claude, was understandably surprised by Desmond’s decision to take up farming again. So, he laid down the gauntlet.

“I told him I wanted to come back to the farm,” Desmond said. “He told me, ‘If you want to farm, you got to buy a farm.’ We were able to buy a farm on a contract for deed. It was his way of making me prove that I was serious about farming – having the debt and responsibility of having a farm.”

Their first season back was, in their words, a disaster. Jean and Desmond went to a farm sale and bought seven lactating cows to get started on their new dairy operation – the cheapest ones on sale that day.

“They were all we could afford, and they were not great milking cows, but we milked them anyway,” Desmond said.

Over time, they bought more cattle, more pasture, and more farm land with the main focus of supporting the dairy. After 30 years, the operation evolved into quite a success. However, by the 2010s, the Millers reluctantly came to the realization that they could not care for their cattle indefinitely, much to Jean’s disappointment in particular as she had truly fallen in love with working with the animals full time.

“When our sons decided to pursue different interests than the dairy, Desmond and I were running it by ourselves,” Jean said. “We decided it was too much work at our age, so we made the decision to transition to crop farming, which was difficult for me because I enjoyed that part of the farm.”

Until this point, the Millers had no time to pay much in-depth attention to the production agriculture portion of their business, previously having had their acres custom farmed so they could focus 100 percent on dairy operations. With the dairy getting phased out, they began taking direct control of their fields again – and had to start over from scratch when it came to raising crops.

“I had never had an agricultural course in college, and here I was all excited about this new career in farming.” Desmond said. “I was kind of out of the loop until the cows were gone, but I had this insatiable hunger for knowledge about soils and fertility. So, I went to everything I could get to, whether it was a conference or seminar. But the first thing I did was I recalled my dad’s innovative foresight from 30 years earlier. He said, ‘You should really be looking at ridge till.’”

Ridge tillage practitioners physically build up and shape the soil to follow the rows where crops will be planted, making fields look much akin to a giant washboard. In Desmond’s case, he implements ridge till in 36-inch rows on all of his acres using a Hiniker ridge till cultivator with winged shanks that throw dirt and crop residue up in ridges. Then using a custom planter he built himself designed to manage heavy residue, he comes through the field, moves aside the residue, scrapes off the top of the ridge to create his seed bed, and plants the seed all in one pass. The idea behind this practice is to reduce erosion and nearly eliminate tillage. There is also a moisture conservation aspect to it, as the tops of the ridges dry out earlier and warm up faster in the spring, allowing him to get into the fields sooner.

“They stay there all the time, and we don’t drive on them,” he said. “It’s always there and dry and we plant into the top. I’m a baby step away from no-till. Every three years, I maintain my ridge, and that involves me moving some dirt. If no-till means never-till, I’m not that. I do have some soil mixing and movement going on, but it’s not deep, it’s not invasive.”

High amounts of residue are actually desirable in Desmond’s strategy, as surface residues break down to build organic matter, but his goal is actually to slow breakdown in favor of increased ground cover to improve weed control, as well as release needed fertility throughout the season.


Desmond Miller plants into the tops of field ridges with his 36-inch custom planter. Since ridge-till covers 100 percent of his acres and requires a high level of residue management, he had to build his own planter that could handle these unique planting scenarios.

“Everyone says they need to get things decomposed as fast as you can. I say, ‘What’s the rush?’ If you have equipment that can handle residue, there’s no rush to get it decomposed. In fact, the slower the better. If you leave it on the surface, it will decompose aerobically, which is more conducive to building organic matter. This also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much more slowly and causes a uniform, consistent mineralization of the residue. If I do anything to speed up the decomposition, it’s going to accelerate mineralization and cause a spike of nitrogen use by microbes, robbing nitrogen from my plants. I don’t have to worry about that because I have uniform mineralization with my slow decomposition of residue.”

Other valuable resources Desmond used to guide him during his transition into row crops were Brian and Darren and the Ag PhD television show.

“I don’t think I’ve missed an episode of Ag PhD,” he said. “I go online and rewatch the older episodes over and over again. My wife thinks I’m a Hefty fanatic, but those guys have a lot of knowledge, and they are absolutely excellent at communicating it.”

Fertility has been a huge factor of change in Desmond’s cropping plan. Just a few years ago, he would simply call his fertilizer company to come out, and they’d tell him what to apply, collect a check, and throw it out there.

After attending Ag PhD Soils Clinics and Neal Kinsey soil fertility seminars, he learned how to read his soil tests, interpret them, and make appropriate plans to feed his crops.

In addition to learning about soils from the Heftys, Desmond also works with Agronomist Lane Konrad at his local Hefty store in Freeman, South Dakota to source seed, crop protection, and other needed inputs.

“He’s really, really into it and on board, and I appreciate him,” he said. “Whatever Lane recommends are the hybrids I go with because he’s a guy who says it like it is. I use all Hefty seed, and the seed treatment is just beyond anything that’s available with all the microbiologicals that are put on the seed. And if Lane doesn’t know an answer to one of my questions, he won’t pretend he does. He’ll find the answer and get back to me on it. It’s a very trustworthy approach.”

While the Millers have a strong relationship with their agronomist and they appreciate the services and information provided by their local store, what keeps them coming back to Hefty Seed and Ag PhD is Brian and Darren’s unique approach to supporting farmers and the ag industry.

“In terms of the Heftys, they’ve got products at a competitive price, they’ve got the service,” Desmond said. “But I’ll tell you the thing that really got me on board with them is their agricultural philosophy.

“There’s a whole spectrum of agricultural philosophy out there, from the organic/regenerative all the way to the exploitative conventional. The Heftys believe the way to feed the world’s growing population and to build and preserve healthy soil is through production agriculture, based on a clear understanding of how to carefully balance soil nutrients in a way that contributes to the life and function of the soil and its future sustainability.”

“Hefty’s keep us positive,” Jean said. “They have a positive outlook on farming, and it keeps us going. That’s a driving force. When we travel and talk to farmers and we tell people we’re from South Dakota, people say, ‘Well, you must know the Heftys!’ We always tell them, ‘We do, and we love those guys!’”