“Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmer produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.” — Wendell Berry
As I read this quote by Wendell Berry, I pondered about our family farm. Are we really good land stewards?
I started by breaking down the question. Good land stewardship means to “take care of” the land. We are God’s caretakers. The big question is, what constitutes good land stewardship? How ARE we taking care of the land? My view of taking care of the land means “to not harm the soils or environment, but protect it and even enhance it”. So are farmers, using modern agriculture techniques, able to be good land stewards and not harm the soils or the environment?
There are a number of processes a farmer goes through to raise a crop. The first and foremost process is to prepare a favorable seed bed. To prepare a favorable seed bed the soil needs to be tilled after the previous crop. Tilling helps to break down crop residue (stalks, stems, leaves) and incorporate the residue into the soil, which results in soil organic material. This is similar to rototilling our gardens.
Next, a plan to replace soil nutrients lost during the previous growing season. In addition, another plan on how to protect the new crop from weeds and insects. The details of these steps are dependent on the type of farming, whether conventional or organic.
How do farmers replace soil nutrients? One way is to use a natural soil nutrient replacement such as animal waste. In our opinion we feel animal waste or manure is a superior soil nutrient replacement. The ultimate recycling program. In addition to soybeans and corn, we raise hogs. All our hog manure is applied to our soil. If there is not enough animal manure, we apply other nutrients from our local coop.
How does a farmer know what and how much nutrients his soil needs? Soil testing. We work with a local coop, NuWay, who have agronomists (crop experts) that take soil samples. These samples are sent to a lab to be analyzed. The results will not only show exactly what and how much nutrients needed but precisely where they need to be placed. Our soil tests show that our fertility level has increased over the past several years.
How does a farmer know what type of crop protection is needed? Most farmers will meet with agronomy experts to discuss different crop protection(against weeds and insects) options and which options are the best for each farm. What may work best on one farm does not mean it will be best for every farm.
What advantage does biotech give farmers? One big advantage of biotech is the in-seed technologies and high-tech equipment allows farmers to put fertilizers and crop protectants right where the seed needs it. The result? Less fertilizers and less crop protectants, which is better for the environment and people.
Fall tillage is another area that has changed over the years. Farmers are very aware of the negative effects of soil erosion. There are now pieces of tillage equipment that result in less soil erosion. On our farm, we use minimum tillage. Minimum tillage is a soil conservation method of tilling. The nature of our soils in this part of the country does not make no-till on a large scale very practical. Here is a 30-second video I took last year as I was tilling a field. Take note of the seagulls! I love it when the seagulls show up!
In addition, farmers are looking at cover crops. Cover crops also help with erosion and provide nutrients to the soil. We have not personally used cover crops but we continue to learn about them to determine if there is a place to use them on our farm.
Another concern about modern ag is growing monocultures. This simply means growing more of the same crop, which results in less crop rotation.
Why do farmers grow monocultures? Which crops to grow is a very complex decision for farmers. Many times it is a market need or the need for feed (such as corn) if the farmer has livestock. A farmer needs a market to sell his crop and if a market indicates a particular crop is needed, many farmers will do that. Let me state that farmers are NOT under any direction from any company on what to plant. It is completely the farmer’s choice. And, yes, economics does play a part. At the end of the day, crop expenses need to be paid and we need to put food on the table.
Can you grow monocultures and still be a good land steward? I think many would agree the jury is still out on that one. Again, from a soil perspective, replacing and preserving soil nutrients is good land stewardship. But there are some definite advantages to crop rotation.
Environmental stewards? Also part of being a good land steward is to improve the environment. One way we do that is plant trees. We love trees! We actually took down 3 older trees earlier this spring, but in turn, planted 30 new trees And as you can see from the picture, we love evergreen trees! Last year’s drought took its toll on some of the small evergreens, but we replanted new ones and replaced those that succumbed to the drought.
We plant trees because it is the right thing to do and it’s good for the environment. And as the quote said above, we love the scenery of trees and we love wildlife. And many people forget that farmers feed wildlife every year. They just seem to help themselves to the corn and soybean fields!
And the great thing is farmers are not regulated to be land stewards. At the end of the day, no one is closer to the land than a farmer. And it only behooves him to treat the land resources the best he can because the land will reward him. Reward him so the land can be passed onto the next generation.
So I ask you, are today’s farmers good land stewards?