Henry Miller was planning to be a math teacher, but it seems God had other plans for him.
Soon after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University (then College) in 1970 with a degree in mathematics, Miller set off for Costa Rica with Rosedale Mennonite Missions. He served as a math and science teacher in a country day school near San Jose.
He met his future wife, Martha Villalobos, at the language school where he was studying Spanish. They were married in 1972 and returned to Michigan— Miller’s home state—in 1974. Miller planned to earn his master’s degree in math and start a teaching career.
But a national economic recession and a teacher glut derailed those plans. The door to teaching closed—and the door to farming opened. Miller went through that door and never looked back. “Once I made the decision to farm, it felt good,” he says. It was in farming that he found his calling.
Miller started his farming career by renting land near his parents in southern Michigan, and in 1977 he and Martha bought their own 276-acre farm near Constantine. Like most of his neighbors, Miller started out growing only seed com. He fertilized, sprayed, planted and tilled like everybody else. But in the early 1980s he started to get concerned about the high level of nitrates in the water. At that time farmers were using large amounts of nitrogen on their fields. One of the methods they used was called “weed and feed.” “You would put your herbicide in a tank of 28-percent nitrogen,” says Miller. “Farmers would broadcast this solution over their fields.”
Miller started questioning the procedure. He put his background in science and his critical thinking skills to good use. “It doesn’t take a lot of water going through the ground to dissolve all the nitrogen that is spread on the top,” he says. “Most of it doesn’t even get to the plants. It’s like if you took a salt shaker and shake some salt on your plate. Take another plate and put all the salt on one pile. What do you think happens?”
The sprinkled salt is completely dissolved, but the pile is still concentrated in one place on the plate. In other words, when water-soluble fertilizer is broadcast indiscriminately, much of it dissolves and leaches away.
Even though farmers were using up to 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre, there were still problems with nitrogen deficiencies in the crops. So Miller began applying a more-with-less philosophy to his farming. Rather than use more nitrogen to counter the deficiencies, he experimented with using less.
In some fields he reduced the amount of nitrogen, tested tissue samples and compared the results to fields in which more nitrogen was used. He didn’t see any difference. He kept lowering the amounts until he got down to 75-80 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Miller’s corn yields were approximately the same as his neighbors’ yields, even though he was using about 65 percent less fertilizer. Clearly, much of the fertilizer others were using was being wasted; it was contaminating the water rather than feeding the plants.
Miller also experimented with more efficient techniques for applying the fertilizer. Rather than broadcasting over everything, he applied it in concentrated bands right along the row with the corn planter and with the cultivator. “Since we started doing that, we hardly ever see nitrogen deficiencies,” he says. Other farmers followed his lead, and now this is a commonly accepted farming practice.
In the early 1990s Miller developed a crop-rotation system which has also cut down on his need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In addition to corn, he grows green beans, potatoes, turnips and various cover crops, including rye and oats. These additional crops introduce organic matter into the soil, add bio-diversity and help the nitrogen affix itself so it can be “recycled” the following season.
Many farmers use cover crops, but Miller says h e’s probably “the only one in the area who attempts to have a cover crop on every acre of my land every year.” He tries to keep his soil continually covered with plant life or plant residue. T his helps to prevent wind erosion— a problem in this part of the country because of the light, sandy soil.
Miller attributes his concern for the land to his Christian upbringing and education. “I see the land as God’s creation,” he says. “I’ve always felt strongly that the land should be maintained and cared for, hopefully leaving it for the next generation in better condition than what it was, or at least as good. I see myself as a steward of the land.”
He is not trying to save the earth, but Miller is doing what he can to make a difference in his corner of the earth. “For me it’s more a goal that I work toward than something I feel I’ve achieved,” he says. Miller admits that his farm isn’t organic or totally sustainable. But he points out that “there are methods and techniques that we use to make our system more sustainable. I do anything I can to reduce off-farm inputs and minimize the impact on the environment, so that the health of the system is maintained as well as the economic viability.”
Miller’s work is important for this very reason. In doing what he can to effect change from where he is, rather than standing still and accepting the status quo, Miller makes a difference. And his rootedness in the mainstream agricultural milieu allows him to positively influence others in the agricultural community.
His commitment to service didn’t end when he finished his term in Costa Rica. Miller also sees his farm business as a vehicle for service. “There are always ways to serve the community,” he says. “The fact that the farm is a business that’s recognized in the area opens doors to do things that we might not be able to do otherwise.”
Miller has been active in church, school and community. He served on the school board of Centreville Public Schools, 1983-91, as well as on many other school committees. Miller has served on the board at Florence Church of the Brethren for most of the last 20 years and has taught youth and adult Sunday school classes for a number of years. He has been active with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and with the Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes peace and justice com m ittee. Several years ago he traveled to Belize with a local group to help a small community build a school.
Earlier this year, Michigan State University awarded Miller the Distinguished Service Award for his farming accomplishments. The prospective math teacher never dreamed he’d see his framed picture on the walls of a university’s agricultural school.