While modern farming provides the foods, materials, and resources that our civilization relies on, it can also negatively impact the surrounding environment in a number of ways. Practices such as excessive tillage, removing natural habitat, and planting the same crop season after season have drained soil of its nutrients and left it exposed. Excess irrigation increases runoff. Nutrients from pesticides and herbicides end up in local water supplies.
The list goes on.
As soil becomes damaged, farmers often move on to new lands. This further reduces forests, grasslands, and other natural habitat, compounding problems further. Farmland already takes up half of our habitable land. With the growing problem of abandoned farmland, it’s critical that we protect and restore existing farm fields rather than creating new ones.
Otherwise, we could runout of topsoil in the next 60 years.
The solution to this is through sustainable farming.
What is Sustainable Farming?
The concept of sustainable farming isn’t anything new. American author Franklin H. King talked about its importance as far back as 1907. The term “sustainable agriculture” itself was coined by agronomist Gordon McClymont in the 1950s. Despite being around for a while, however, there are a number of misconceptions about sustainable farming.
First and foremost, some think it’s solely about protecting the environment no matter the cost. Sustainable farming is seen as something that is expensive and filled with red tape. However, economic and social impact are also key pieces of sustainable farming. Sustainable practices must be profitable, or they are not sustainable. Similarly, they must provide for the needs of the people, allowing them to receive healthy goods at an affordable price.
Sustainable farming can require a little more strategy and additional work upfront, but once implemented, it actually improves yields, lowers cost, and provides higher quality food at a more affordable price point, all the while protecting the surrounding environment. Sustainable farming practices can also potentially reduce the risk of diseases and health complications caused by food.
In other words, everyone wins.
The question is, how can sustainable farming be implemented? There are a number of ways.
Tillage has long been seen as a way of preparing soil for a new season of planting while reducing the presence of weeds. However, tillage has come under increased scrutiny as we’ve learned more about its negative effects. Excess, long-term tilling has been found to reduce soil density, water-holding capacity, organic matter levels, and more. This is because tillage disrupts soil structure, making it more vulnerable to wind, runoff, and general erosion. It also releases carbon that’s sequestered in the soil.
All of this leads to weaker soil with less organic matter present.
Switching to reduced or no-till farming is not only much better for your soil, but it’s less work in the long run. Overtime, it also greatly reduces the need for fertilizers and herbicides. Meanwhile, crop yields increase significantly.
Crop rotation has long been a popular practice for more sustainable farming. The concept has been around since 6000 BC. Today, we have a better understanding of the science behind crop rotation, allowing farmers to be more strategic while achieving greater results.
We now know that certain crops deplete different nutrients from the soil. They also release certain nutrients that other plants require. By rotating the right plants in the right order, farmers can replenish nutrients and keep their soil healthy. In addition to protecting soil and reducing erosion, crop rotation ultimately improves yields.
However, it does come with downsides. Because farmers have to plant a larger variety of crops, they generally have to invest in more equipment. Additionally, there is more risk involved, especially for those who are less experienced with the practice. When done incorrectly, crop rotation can result in weaker yields.
Establishing cover crops can be a great way to protect soil when it’s otherwise the most exposed. Cover crops have been proven to reduce runoff and erosion from rain and wind, increase organic matter, improve soil structure, and more. However, the process of establishing cover crops comes with additional labor and cost. To make things more difficult, they need to be established at a time where farmers generally have their hands full.
Still, for many farmers, the extra work and cost can ultimately prove to be worth it.
Reducing Use of Synthetic Fertilizers
Nitrogen is a critical ingredient to plant growth. Unfortunately, things like erosion, excess tillage, and planting the same crops year after year can drain soil of nitrate presence. To combat this, farmers have long relied on nitrate-filled fertilizers. However, this can cause problems of its own.
First and foremost, synthetic fertilizers don’t actually fix what’s wrong with the soil. They simply compensate for it. Over time, they might actually cause further harm to organic matter in the soil. Additionally, these excess nitrates often end up being washed away by rain and flooding where they end up in local water supplies.
By using fertilizers sparingly, farmers can save money and protect the surrounding environment while still giving their crops a nitrate boost when needed.
Though buffer strips seem rather small and simple, they can make a notable impact. Strategically placed buffer strips help reduce wind, slow water runoff, capture sediment, protect local water supplies, and ultimately combat erosion. They can even help with noise and odor reduction.
The land they occupy is very minimal compared to the benefits they provide. And once established, they practically take care of themselves.
Despite the advantages that come with sustainable farming practices, there are a few hurdles that generally stand in the way. First and foremost, there is upfront cost. No-till and reduced till farming requires special equipment. Buffer strips and cover crops can also come with added expenses. There is also the extra time, strategy, and experimentation required with many of these actions.
Many farmers simply don’t have the money or manpower to justify implementing them.
That is why there are a number of programs and initiatives available to help incentivize farmers to take action. One of the most prominent examples is the Conservation Reserve Program. CRP offers market-based rental payments to farmers and landowners in exchange for taking marginal farmland out of active production and establishing native vegetation. A significant portion of the establishment cost is also covered.
Through the CP-43 practice, farmers can even establish prairie strips under CRP. These act as natural buffers that protect soil while still allowing farmers to grow traditional crops.
Of course, this still requires extra time and effort that many farmers don’t have. This is where we can help. FDCE provides full-service CRP solutions that take care of the entire establishment process for you: CRP seed purchasing, establishment, herbicide application, documentation, and report submission for cost-share reimbursement. With CRP and FDCE, it couldn’t be easier or more rewarding to implement sustainable practices into your farmland.
Contact us today to get started.