Environmental Tillage Systems is tilling up success in Minnesota

In 2002, a farmer in southeastern Minnesota yearned for a piece of machinery that could till and apply fertilizer simultaneously to narrow strips of farmland. Knowing there wasn’t anything like it on the market, he set out to make the equipment himself and called it the SoilWarrior. Twenty-one years later, that simple idea has blossomed into a thriving business, Environmental Tillage Systems (ETS), in Faribault, Min.

The SoilWarrior is a complete precision strip-tillage and nutrient placement system. It’s designed to place nutrients in the zone, the narrow band of soil where planting takes place, leaving the soil between crop rows undisturbed to prevent erosion and boost yield. Today, ETS machines are shipped to farmers across the U.S. and beyond its borders to Canada and Zimbabwe.

“The founder first started building the machine for himself. Eventually, people saw it running out in the field and started asking what it was,” Kristin Krell said. Krell is the marketing and communications manager at ETS. “He started talking about it, and people were asking if they could get one, too.”

The business started in an old hog barn. What began as a make-to-order operation with a small team quickly ramped up in size and scope. As the need for more space and people grew, ETS left the barn behind and moved its operations to Faribault in 2008.

“Environmental Tillage System as a business was officially incorporated in 2005, and the product we build is the SoilWarrior,” Krell said. “That’s the original name, and it’s stuck.”

The SoilWarrior is the company’s flagship product and allows for a farming operation to till their fields while simultaneously incorporating dry or liquid fertilizer. In 2021, ETS launched the SoilWarrior Edge, which is a three-point mounted strip-till system that allows farmers to add their own fertilizer system.

“The original SoilWarrior is a pull-behind machine with a fertilizer delivery system incorporated within the unit, so the operator can strip-till and fertilize together,” Krell said. “The SoilWarrior Edge is just a tillage system; you can add your own fertilizer delivery system.”

Strip tillage is a tillage method that tills only the narrow band of earth where the planter will go, disturbing only the soil where the seed will be embedded. Everything else in the field is left undisturbed. Unlike traditional tilling, where farmers turn their fields black after crops come out and apply fertilizer later, the SoilWarrior can incorporate the fertilizer as it tills. Then, when spring arrives and planting season begins, the farmer can get right into the field and start sowing their crops.

According to Krell, tilling and fertilizing at the same time provides several benefits. It leads to less soil compaction and less labor for the farmer.

“Not only are they saving time, but they’re also using less fuel because they’re able to do two jobs at once,” she said. “Placing the fertilizer where the seed needs it is an added benefit because you’re not putting fertilizer all over the field. This way, the seedbed is ready for the planter.”

SoilWarrior sales have been increasing over the past few years, Krell said, and it’s likely due to the growing popularity of strip-tilling in the agriculture community.

“Strip tilling is catching on, and more farmers understand the practice and are starting to incorporate it on their farms,” she said, “It’s a lifestyle change to do things differently, but strip-tilling and applying fertilizer at the same time is catching on in the agriculture industry.”

Environmental Tillage Systems saw its best year of sales in 2022, selling 80 SoilWarriors. Each machine is built from the ground up at the Faribault business. In addition to building brand-new products, ETS also reconfigures or refurbishes older SoilWarrior models. Each machine is custom-built to meet the client’s needs and can hold anywhere from four to 24 rows depending on the size of the machine ordered.

“It’s very versatile,” Krell said. “The original farmer-founder was building machines to order, exactly the way someone wanted and, in essence, we’re still doing the same thing. We can still very much build a machine to order.”

When a customer comes to ETS with a specific need, the company works hard to understand their needs and adjusts the SoilWarrior configuration to achieve the client’s vision.

“First and foremost, we’re doing this for our farmers,” Krell said. “If they’re going to trust us in trying a new tillage process or farming practice, we want to build what they want and something specifically for their farm.”

The future of farming is constantly evolving, so ETS makes it a priority to provide equipment that will help its clients now and well into the future.

“With the ever-changing needs of today’s farmer, it’s important to continue to evolve as a company,” ETS CEO Kevin Born said. “Our growth is fueled by the next generation of farmers. The generation that will continue to produce for the world while treasuring the traditions of the past.”

One of the ways ETS systems can help is by creating efficiencies in the field.

“We know that for farmers, it’s getting harder to find labor, and this equipment will help them spend less time in the field and more time in other areas,” Krell said.

When it comes to fertilizer stewardship, there are four “Rs,” Krell said: right source, right rate, right time and right place.

“The SoilWarrior is a 4R piece of equipment,” she said. “It is able to take on whatever fertilizer source that a farmer and their agronomist chooses, and it can be put right into the machine. They’re able to (apply fertilizer at a ) variable rate …because certain parts of the field need different amounts of fertilizer. This machine can do that. With a SoilWarrior, the user knows that fertilizer is getting into the right place and being incorporated right into the zone and right where the seeds need it to grow.”

It’s vital that Environmental Tillage Systems abide by the 4Rs, Krell said.

“Just because we’re able to apply fertilizer and reduce passes, we also want to be good stewards of the land, hence our name,” she said. “Topsoil doesn’t just reproduce automatically. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and it’s not coming back in the farmer’s lifetime. That’s something we want to help farmers preserve so they can keep their farms around as long as possible.”

Along with offering convenience and saving time, the SoilWarrior helps prevent wind erosion because it uses the previous year’s crop residue, which helps protect the soil. The SoilWarrior is also compatible with cover crops, as farmers can till right through cover crops in strips, preparing them for the following season.

Director of Operations Tony Thompson said one of the priorities for ETS is to continue building SoilWarriors on site. That’s why it has invested in a variety of machines to get the job done. From welding to metal fabrication to powder coating, nearly all components of a SoilWarrior are built in Faribault.

“Bringing as much as we can in-house has allowed us to be more efficient with our building,” Thompson said. “We can control our timeline even more than we used to in the past. We can control our destiny that way. If we have good vendors, that works, but as COVID-19 approached and people had problems with staffing, that would have been an issue for us because things weren’t on our timeline. When you’re relying on vendors, you’re basically tossed about and have to make the best of a bad situation. Because of that, we learned the more we can do at our facility and become self-sufficient, the more we can control our own destiny.”

The ability to produce the equipment has saved time and reduced costs because parts no longer need to be transported in and out for welding and painting. Currently, the ETS team can make two machines a week, which Thompson said is largely due to its hard-working employees.

“We’ve built a good staff here,” he said. “We’re a community, and we try to bring that in with our staff. They have a dedication to the job and the land, and those things are shared among the group. That’s how we’ve hired. It’s easy when you live it.”

Employee satisfaction and retention is important at ETS. Three of its employees have been building SoilWarriors for many years, dating back to the early days when production was happening in the hog barn. Thompson said one of the things ETS offers is the opportunity to grow. For example, one team lead started out on the line and worked his way up to his current position when he realized he could grow his career with ETS.

“I believe you can have a career in whatever you do,” Thompson said. “If you can get your employees hearing that it’s more than a job, they’ll see that, and I think we’re doing pretty good at that.”

Thompson said it’s important for him and other leaders in the company to stay engaged with staff by holding regular meetings with individual team leads.

“We’re a small enough company that the leaders get out onto the floor and ask their employees how they think we’re doing as an employer,” Thompson shared. “We have good production bonuses and know it’s important when we ask for more from our employees that we have something to give back to them to show our investment in them. We reinvest in machines and equipment, and we do the same thing with our employees. The investments in the facility that benefit the employees are well received.”

Krell said that being a smaller company allows ETS employees to take a hands-on, relationship-based approach with its customers.

“Something we really pride ourselves on at Environmental Tillage Systems is our customer service,” she said. “Our farmers will get to know the salesperson for their area, and they know that that person isn’t someone that’s just going to take their order and submit it to production and move on from them.”

Krell said once a customer decides to make a purchase, the sales team makes it a priority to help the farmer get their SoilWarrior up and running.

“We make sure the client understands how the machine works and help them get it hooked up if time and season allow,” she said. “Typically, when they first get into the field, one of the service techs will take a couple of passes with the farmer to make sure they’re comfortable and understand the machine. Even if someone is (not a) customer, if they have a question, we’ll make sure they’re being helped. We know that a lot of times, this may be the farmer’s first time strip-tilling in general. It could be a brand-new practice with brand new equipment, and we’re here to support them so they have a good experience.”

If farmers are not strip-tilling, they rely on conventional tillage, no till or a combination of both, Krell said.

“It’s up to the farmer and what works for their farm,” she said. “Recently, farmers are becoming more understanding and making sure their return on investment is high. They may say ‘no’ to tilling on some fields because they have sandy soil, but they’ll till for other fields. We work with all types of farmers (to find) what really works for them. It’s their business and their livelihood. We want to make sure they succeed in whatever they do.”

Whether it’s a SoilWarrior or a competitor’s strip-tilling product, Krell said she loves seeing the strip-till machines in fields because it means people are adapting to the process.

“Of course, we hope they’ll eventually buy a SoilWarrior, but we just enjoy seeing that they’re making these changes on their farms,” she said.

One of the ways Environmental Tillage Systems stays relevant in its field is by conducting research to stay ahead of the curve and getting out and talking to its farm clients.

“We truly take our customers’ input and the information they give us seriously,” Krell said. “We don’t just brush over it and give them a free hat. We take all of their advice seriously when they give us suggestions and try to put them into practice.”

Krell said the future looks bright for ETS. It will continue to grow because strip-tilling is catching on, and more farmers are adopting the practice every year.

“The SoilWarrior logo and name are becoming more common, and more people are recognizing us,” she said. “We’ll only go up from here and continue to enhance the practice of strip-tilling. We want to keep sharing the benefits of strip-tilling and how it helps improve soil health, too.”

Soil is a living thing, Krell said. Like all living things, it needs to be fed.

“When we don’t till the whole ground up, we’re keeping some of the soil undisturbed,” she said. “When that happens, the soil can do what it needs. It can use the crop residue to feed itself.”

Strip tillers like the SoilWarrior allow the soil to replenish itself. When farmers start strip-tilling, one of the biggest things they notice is the presence of more earthworms in the ground.

“If you see earthworms, that’s a good sign,” Krell said. “We’ve had clients say they’ve had earthworms grab the bottom corn leaf and pull it underground, and that’s exactly what you want to see. It means your soil is healthy.”

Being in the production agriculture field is one of Krell’s favorite parts about being part of Environmental Tillage Systems. It’s not something everyone gets a chance to understand. For her, it’s exciting knowing where food, fiber and fuel come from.

“I also really enjoy getting to know our farmers,” she said. “It’s great to be innovative and to try new things, to be part of cutting-edge technology and to get to know them and their operation.”

Krell said getting to know SoilWarrior owners – the husbands, wives and kids that use their products – has been enjoyable. They’ve become a little group.

“It’s fun to have them meet each other and hear what they do on their farms,” she said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that.”


The Essentials:

Environmental Tillage Systems


Phone: 507-332-2231

Address: 85 Prairie Ave SW, Faribault, MN 55021


Anna Vangsness

A freelance writer from New Ulm.