One of my favorite quotes is from Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
Personally, I do not like the words conservation or sustainability. Here’s what both words mean to me, “standing still.” As a farmer and an agronomist, I feel like I am called to improve things, not just stand still. Instead of looking at sustainability with the hot button environmental issues in crop production agriculture, let’s talk about how we actually make things better. How is it possible to improve your soil, make the water cleaner and food safer? My answer is modern technology. For each point below I will list the modern technology solution with the letters, “MT.”
IMPROVE THE SOIL
1) Test the soil for pH, nutrients, holding capacity and organic matter. Once you know your soil’s weaknesses, you can begin the improvement process. MT – your smartphone for grid soil sampling.
2) Address soil pH. Most crops, along with beneficial soil life (earthworms, bacteria, fungi, etc.) thrive when the soil pH is around 6.5 to 7. Fix that, and your soil will come to life. MT – variable rate lime or elemental sulfur applications to adjust pH where necessary.
3) Fertilize correctly. A farmer’s biggest expense is now fertilizer. MT – Ag PhD Soil Test app which tells you which micro, secondary and primary nutrients you actually need to improve your land.
4) Reduce tillage. This helps build soil organic matter. MT – better planters that can properly place seeds even in high residue situations.
MAKE THE WATER CLEANER
1) Reduce erosion. This could fall under the “improve the soil” category, but I place it here because no one wants more soil in the water. MT – new tiling equipment that allows farmers to install drain tile more accurately than ever. With tile, erosion is reduced 40% to 60% in most cases because the water table is kept at 2’ or 3’ deep, meaning when rain hits it can soak in rather than running off.
2) Keeping nutrients in the field rather than in the water. MT – nitrogen stabilizers help keep nitrogen in a form that doesn’t leach, keeping it out of the groundwater.
MAKE FOOD SAFER
1) Feed the plant better. If plants have a balanced diet of the right nutrients, the food they produce will be healthier. MT – better soil and plant tissue testing allows farmers to know which nutrients their crops are short of.
2) Better pest control. When a plant is under stress due to weeds, insects or diseases it will produce more natural carcinogens. Just like you and me, we are healthier when we have fewer stresses. MT – biotechnology. I know you may be scared of “GMOs,” but when insects are controlled with proteins that are safe to humans, that means fewer pesticides are used on the crops. MT – safer pesticides. Did you know that many of the new products on the market today are just reproductions of natural things that exist in the environment? Callisto herbicide comes from a tree. Silencer insecticide comes from a flower. Headline fungicide comes from a wood rot. Most of the dangerous pesticides in the U.S. were banned years ago. MT – biological products. I prefer the term “natural” products, but there are a whole host of safe, naturally-existing bacteria, fungi and plant growth hormone products that are now being used in agriculture.
Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Prize winner, said, “I’ve spent the past 20 years trying to bring the Green Revolution to Africa, where farmers use traditional seeds and the organic farming systems that some call ‘sustainable.’ But low-yield farming is only sustainable for people with high death rates.”
While many people may lead you to believe that we need to go back to old-school farming techniques like we used 50 years ago (e.g. no pesticides, no biotech crops, no commercial fertilizer, etc.), keep in mind that today our food is safer, our soil erosion has been dramatically reduced, our yields and food production per acre are far higher, our water is cleaner and our life expectancy is longer. In other words, farmers are doing a great job, and by utilizing modern technology these things will only get better. In my book, that’s better than conservation or sustainability. That’s improvement in ag.
In 2015, VITAL will feature two of America’s most well-known and respected farming experts. Not only are Darren and Brian Hefty successful farmers and agronomists, but they also host the popular television and radio show Ag PhD. Their programs help farmers take their operation from good to great by sharing information ranging from how to maximize your fertilizer program & tiling to stopping those yield-robbing insects and crop diseases and more. If you’d like to learn where you can watch or listen to Ag PhD, you can find the listings at agphd.com.