Farmers across the Midwest are not only protecting the environment, but they are increasing their profitability by using a variety of methods to farm sustainably.
Like many producers across the Great Plains, Paul Shubeck gets up before the sun, fixes a pot of coffee, checks the latest commodity prices and frets over the weather.
Not until he gets out of his pickup truck and climbs into a tractor to tend to his corn and soybean fields do the differences begin to emerge.
Shubeck is a sustainable farmer, although he prefers “environmentally-friendly agriculture.”
“I think farmers, when given the opportunity, will protect the environment,” he said. “It’s important for agriculture.”
On his 1,000 acres near Beresford, S.D., Shubeck employs buffer strips around wetlands and has enrolled a number of those sensitive acres into the federal Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve programs. It’s all an effort to help protect the soil for his current needs – and for the needs of a future generation of producers who will till the soil, grow food and feed and supply the clean fuels revolution of corn and cellulosic ethanol.
Shubeck said he sees much encouragement toward those goals while driving through southeastern South Dakota’s Lincoln County, where 4.6 percent of the land is covered by wetland, according to the United States Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.
“It’s just wet, and you just have to face the fact that it’s too wet to farm,” he said. “You have to accept the fact that it’s never going to be top-notch land and let’s raise some wildlife on it.”
Shubeck, a board member of POET Biorefining – Hudson, S.D. has a deep understanding of farming, as well as how to protect the resource. The family farm began as a homestead. His father was a soils professor at South Dakota State University in Brookings. And for some 20 years now, Shubeck has been a wetlands mediator in South Dakota, helping producers, environmental groups and the federal government find common ground over the protection of wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, a nearly 300,000-square-mile swath of grasslands and wetlands that stretches from Canada through parts of Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.
It’s where more than 50 percent of the nation’s waterfowl is reared, according to the Washington, D.C.-based conservation group Wildlife Management Institute.
“I saw all these people getting in trouble with litigation over converting wetlands into cropland,” Shubeck said. “You think about it, farmers really and truly have saved more wetlands in the United States, preserving them at an amazing rate, way more than any other environment group dreamed of.”
A Family Tradition
David Gillen has similar constraints on his 4,300-acres on the rolling prairie near White Lake, S.D. Uneven areas of wetland cuts into the land his family has farmed since 1897, as well as the acres he rents to grow corn, soybeans and wheat.
Yet bio-diversity and sustainability have become a family tradition for Gillen and his wife, Carol.
“My wife always says I need one new field to get the blood pumping,” said Gillen, also a POET board member (POET Biorefining – Mitchell, S.D.) “One thing that’s really unique about our operation is that the wetlands and drainages, a lot of those areas we square off and plant them to grass and then we hunt them, it’s habitat for the wildlife.”
Near White Lake, that means pheasant, the South Dakota state bird that in 2009 brought $219.8 million to the state in economic impact, according to the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.
“The marginal areas we hunt, and then we farm the best areas,” Gillen said. “It really works well for us.”
To further extend the sustainability of his operations, Gillen plants food plots and grasses on acres he owns, as well as on the land he leases. And when his winter wheat is harvested, Gillen plants cover crops like field peas and Indian head lentils.
“It uses up some moisture so next year it’s a little bit easier to plant,” said Gillen, who has been experimenting with cover crops for four years. “It gives some really good cover for wildlife, too. We’re still learning, but it’s definitely a conservation process. There’s a lot of benefit to the cover crop – even though financially, we’re still trying to figure that one out. I feel really good about it though, since in some years you could probably farm them, but you run the risk of them dropping out and then you’ve lost money – and that’s just not good business.”
By the Numbers
In 1960, there were 3.95 million farms in the U.S., according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2009, the number had dropped to 2.2 million. While the number of farms has decreased, the size of those farms has increased, taking advantage of the acres previously occupied by smaller farms. This has led to a rise in industrial farming practices like single crops/row crops grown continuously over many seasons and the extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy inputs.
The gains have come at a price, said Peter Sexton, Associate Professor in Sustainable Cropping Systems with South Dakota State University. But he sees many producers embracing more sustainable methods – not so much as going backward in time, but forward into a better, more sustainable future.
“As far as the environment goes, no-till is a big step forward in terms of sustainability and sustainable farming, because you’re conserving fuel,” he said. “You’re also protecting the soil, you’re returning more organic material to the soil, and it’s going to conserve soil again and again. If people take care of the soil, they can go many different directions in the future, and if they don’t, they can’t. It’ll come undone no matter what you do.”
Midwest producers have switched to sustainable practices that best fit within their soil and terrain parameters, including no-till, strip-tilling, wind-breaks, crop rotation, Global Positioning System farming (also called precision farming), buffer strips and wholesale avoidance of wetlands.
Producers who embrace the practices are reaping the benefits. A recent Field to Market study looking at corn sustainability improvements from 1987 to 2007 found:
• The amount of acreage needed to produce one bushel of corn dropped 37 percent;
• Soil loss per bushel, above a tolerable level, fell 69 percent;
• Irrigation water used per bushel dropped 27 percent;
• Energy inputs used to grow one bushel fell 37 percent;
• And carbon emissions fell 30 percent per bushel.
“I look at sustainable agriculture as production that doesn’t compromise your resource base for future production,” Sexton said. “Generally, it all revolves around preserving the soil – minimize erosion or eliminate it as much as you can and improve soil quality and recycle nutrients as much as possible.”
Shubeck said he’s a bit less technical, a bit more impassioned, about sustainability and the environment.
“I really think the story is that farmers, in general, are doing a good job with the environment,” he said. “They’re saving wetlands, they’re protecting wildlife. What a great testament to the farmer.”
A Different Approach
Duane Jackson and his son, Kyle, farm some 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans near Daleville, Ind., 40 miles northeast of Indianapolis in the White River basin. Throughout the 1990s, the 5,746 square mile watershed was found to have high concentrations of pesticide runoff, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Between 1992 and 1996, according to USGS research, the White River had pesticide concentrations at testing sites that were among the highest in the nation.
By then, the Jacksons, who sell all of their field corn to POET for ethanol production, had been using no-till practices for nearly 10 years.
While no-tilling is good for the soil, lending to higher water concentrations and protecting the topsoil from erosion, the knock on it, Sexton said, is that it can lead to extensive use of herbicides and pesticides for weed control if done poorly.
“For organic growers, it’s pretty tough to have weed control with a no-till system,” Sexton said. “In their situation, they may be more sustainable in relying on internal resources and minimizing inputs of nutrients from other places. You can ask, ‘Is a system sustainable?’ all you have to do is look what’s happening with the soil.”
The Jacksons did just that. For the past 10 years, they’ve utilized strip-tilling that’s the best of both worlds, Jackson said. The practice uses a tiller that only disturbs where the seed is going to be planted, by using knives that lift the soil up into mounds.
As the beds are being prepared, producers also can pinpoint their use of dry fertilizers and anhydrous ammonia right into the strip.
“It’s a step past no-tilling,” Jackson said. “It helps it dry up and warm up the soil quicker in the spring and makes a really good seed bed, just like a garden right there in that strip. And it builds organic matter quicker than tilling the ground.”
Jackson has the data to prove it.
“We’ve got soil tests from several years now and the organic matter in our fields has been going up since we quit tilling,” he said. “And the fertilizer is put right there where you need it, it’s not broadcast, you know it’s not spread all over the place and you can use a little bit less fertilizer which also is environmentally friendly.”
Committed to Sustainability
Sustainability was a term first addressed by Congress in its 1990 Farm Bill, according to USDA documents. That original idea set forth considerations that protected the natural resources, while satisfying consumer need and making sure the farmer made a decent living.
Those directives are not lost on the folks at POET, where the company is committed to producing ethanol as sustainable as possible and minimizing its impact on natural resources, while encouraging its producers do the same.
“You have a lot of people out there who lead a high-carbon lifestyle who claim to be environmentalists,” said Jeff Broin, POET’s Chief Executive Officer. “Then you have the farmer who is taking the soil and creating crops that are turned into all types of products that are truly renewable, in that they return the carbon that’s consumed by the plant again.”
In April, Broin introduced the company’s sustainable initiative called Ingreenuity. The first phase of the plan calls for reducing the amount of water used in the production of ethanol by 22 percent in the next five years.
Other steps include increasing sustainability in biofuel production, reducing greenhouse gas intensity in biorefining and developing new bioproducts to displace petroleum-based products.
“We started Ingreenuity for the same reasons we’re in the ethanol business – because it is the right thing to do,” Broin said.
In short, POET wants to maximize every acre of corn grown by its producers by putting each and every part of the plant to its best use including putting the stalks back into the soil as organic material, using the starch in the seed toward ethanol production, the nutritious part of the seed toward the food and feed supply and turning the cobs into next-generation cellulosic ethanol.
“If we can help preserve raw materials for future generations and help clean up the environment, we certainly want to do our part,” Broin said. “But, the farmers are the real environmentalists out there.”
Good for the Whole Country
Ray Gaesser and his wife, Elaine, left their native Indiana in 1977 as newlyweds and settled near Corning, Iowa, to farm. Back then, he said, producers practiced whatever methods brought in the best yields for the least cost. But as the size of his operation grew – the Gaesser’s tend to 6,000 acres, split evenly between corn and soybeans – Gaesser said his views begin to change toward saving the land for his son, Chris, and daughter, Jen.
Gaesser, a strong ethanol proponent and a shareholder in POET Biorefining – Corning, made the decision to embrace no-till practices.
“We don’t have wind erosion and we just see a big advantage of having that residue there on the soil surface and breaking that rainfall impact,” said Gaesser, who also serves on the board of the Iowa Soybean Association and as Vice President of the American Soybean Association. “We’re saving money and we’re saving the soil, that’s equal to us. It’s really nice when you can do both, save money and save the environment at the same time.”
While he’s switched to no-till practices, it’s been his embrace of GPS technology that has made his farm more profitable – and more sustainable, Gaesser said. He uses GPS to map out his fields for planting and better control the amount and the pattern of his herbicide use.
With GPS units in his tractors, combined with soil analysis, moisture content, crop yield and weed density information on a spreadsheet stored on his home computer, Gaesser said he’s taken much of the guesswork out of farming – and it has enriched his bottom line.
“If we’re not profitable, we can’t be sustainable,” he said. “But no-till, for us, we use a lot less fuel, it eliminates a lot of trips with the equipment over the fields and I think we’re getting better yields over what we’d have with tillage.”
And as a producer who supplies POET with its raw materials for corn-based ethanol, Gaesser said he feels good about the sustainable future of farming.
“Sustainability is not only saving the soil, it’s saving the fossil fuels,” he said. “That’s good for the whole country. Sustainability is profitability.”