American Farmer as Environmentalist - Debunking a Stereotype
By Daniel de la Rosa
Have you ever found yourself in a conversation in which one or more participants discussed the negative impacts of modern agriculture on the environment? We'd be willing to bet the farm you have.
But what about the negative impacts that ignoring the environment would have on modern agriculture? And the fact that our farmers and ranchers long ago made the environment a priority and have overseen a 50 percent decline in cropland erosion in just the past 30 years?
American farmers have gotten a bad rap from a stereotype that pillories them for not being "green" — not caring about their environmental footprint. Accusations that farmers use too much fertilizer or too much pesticide often portray them as members of an industry that tramples the environment. But for farmers, the picture is a bit out of focus and resembles those shaky, grainy photos taken by amateurs at major disasters.
Mark Williams, a farmer who grows wheat, sorghum silage and cotton on 15,000 acres near Farwell in West Texas, said a farmer has to be environmentally conscious because "first of all, it is the right thing to do."
"As farmers, we realize we are stewards of the land, and we do all that is possible to pass our land to future generations in as good of condition if not better than when we started farming. Second, it just makes economic sense. Farmers realize that we must take care of our land because it maintains the productivity and value of our resources. No one wants to buy a farm that has been abused by not farming with good conservation practices," he said.
For farmers like Williams in West Texas, where months of drought can easily zap a crop, being ultra-conscious about water is vital.
Farmers who use conservation techniques want to maintain the vitality and fertility of their land by using several tactics to do so. They want to keep plowing at a minimum to stop soil erosion and prevent water loss.
In a way, that is why no-till farming caught on. It saves the organic levels of soils and allows them to be productive for longer periods of time, resulting in lower production costs.
Practicing conservation farming is especially important now, in the wake of the worst drought in 25 years.
"Plowing just plows out moisture and removes cover on the fields which can cause the land to blow," said Williams. "Wind and blowing dirt is a constant issue in this area."
He added that since he is farming over the Ogallala aquifer, there are a number of conservation practices used on his farm.
"We try to always have some cover on the ground. The best way to manage cover is with no-till farming techniques. I try not to disturb stubble after harvest to protect the ground from blowing and to help soak up rainfall. A key to our no-till farming is the use of herbicides to control weeds instead of plowing," said Williams.
The idea of conservation farming is spreading through the U.S. farming sector—a trend that researchers believe must continue for it to really make a difference going forward.
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) said the careful and meticulous stewardship by American farmers has spurred a nearly 50 percent decline in erosion of cropland by wind and water since 1982. The use of conservation tillage, a way of farming that reduces erosion or soil loss on cropland while using less energy, has grown from 17 percent of acreage in 1982 to 63 percent today. At the same time, total land used for crops declined by 15 percent, or 70 million acres.
Farmers have also enrolled a total of 31 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program to protect the environment and provide habitat for wildlife. Since its inception in 1985, the program has helped reduce soil erosion by 622 million tons and restored more than 2 million acres of wetlands.
Farmers, ranchers and other landowners have installed more than 2 million miles of conservation buffers under initiatives within the Farm Bill. The buffers improve soil, air and water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, and create scenic landscapes. Each year, hundreds of thousands of trees are planted on farmland.
Crop rotation, the practice of growing different crops in succession on the same land, is another way farmers take care of the land. For contour farming, farmers plant crops across the slope of the land to conserve water and protect soil.
Aside from having the ability to feed an American population of more than 300 million and growing, the increasing environmental consciousness of U.S. farmers ensures the land on which everything depends will not lose its vitality despite the increased demands made on it to provide food for more Americans.
"I think farmers are more geared to preserving our water resources because we realize how limited these resources are. There is much more no-till farming today than there was 20 years ago. This does help preserve the environment and it just makes economic sense," said Williams.
If conservation farming is done for many years and enough organic matter built up at the surface, then the layer of mulch would help in preventing soil erosion from taking place and ruining the land. When torrential rain falls, the valuable topsoil does not get easily washed away and helps the land retains its fertility or even increases it.
Jamie Blythe Wood, who helps her family farm 3,500 acres outside of Courtland, Alabama, said farmers have to be environmentalists because if they are not, "we would be out of a job."
"You can't make a living off of your land if you don't take care of it," she said. "For a farmer, the land is your life, your soul, your livelihood. If I don't keep my farm a beautiful, healthy place, I would lose the most important part of who I am."