The World's First Environmentalists

"Eco-friendly" and "farming" are not terms that urban media typically link together. In fact, most people would be surprised to learn that farmers have proven themselves to be on cutting edge of the green movement, constantly testing new techniques to limit their impact on the environment while continuing to provide a safe, healthy, affordable food supply for the United States and the world. Farmers have always sought to do more with less by growing more crops on less land using less fuel and chemicals, and over the past 30 years in particular they have become incredibly efficient.

Here are just a few facts you may not have known about farming in America:

  • The current farm bill provides more than $54 billion in conservation program spending to protect and enhance water, air, and soil quality; to prevent erosion; and to conserve natural resources.
  • Nearly 46 percent of land in the United States is farm or ranch land, and agricultural land provides habitat for 75 percent of the nation's wildlife.
  • Precision farming practices boost crop yields and reduce waste by using satellite mapping and computers to match seed, fertilizer, and crop protection applications to local soil conditions.
  • Domestic, renewable, plant-based fuels have a smaller environmental footprint and a larger net energy gain than petroleum-based fuels and increase our nation's economic and energy security. The farm bill provides $1.1 billion for renewable energy programs.
  • Since the early 1930s, federal farm programs have contained provisions that help farmers protect wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Ask a farmer about his commitment to the environment, and he'll be proud to tell you about the eco-friendly methods practiced on his farm. "We like to think of ourselves as the world's first environmentalists," said Steve Verett, a farmer from Lubbock, Texas. "We make our living off of the land…why wouldn't we want to take care of it as best we can?"

For the rest of us, "being green" seems easy: we recycle, tote re-usable grocery bags and turn off lights when we leave a room. For farmers, the bar is set much higher and the stakes are high as well, as they must constantly re-evaluate and rework their methods. Variations in the weather and soil might mean that a technique that worked beautifully one year is useless the next. Because there is no simple, single formula for producing a successful crop in an environmentally friendly fashion, the best choices are made by those who know the land best-the farmer-not lawmakers or interest groups.

Our new series will take a look at a few of the many conservation methods used on farms nowadays-not all farmers can (or should) use all of these techniques, but they continue to experiment with new approaches to green farming that allow them to be kind to the planet while still producing a bountiful food supply for a growing world population. Read on to learn a bit about some of the eco-friendly practices that farmers all over the country are adopting-and you just might be surprised to see how green American farmers really are.

Agriculture, by definition, is the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock. The very nature of their business insists that farmers be responsible stewards of the land. For as long as this country has been in existence, they have taken it upon themselves to provide for its people and worked to protect that land in order to provide for future generations.
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Years ago, a farmer's most important tools included simple pitchforks and ox-drawn plows. But today, farmers rely on items like global positioning systems (GPS) , high-tech remote-sensing instruments, and sophisticated software programs.
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Certain critics of modern-day agriculture long for the days of small farms, limited pest and weed control application, inefficient methods, and old school equipment. They blame our environmental woes on the practices that enable farmers to feed the world's growing population and insist that production agriculture must be shifted to organic and local farming in order to save the planet—never mind that food production would drop dramatically, leaving untold numbers of people without proper nutrition.
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Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are marvelously useful for drivers who need to navigate new cities, find the fastest route to their destinations, or simply have no sense of direction. But for farmers, GPS systems are allowing them to do something even better—be kinder to the planet all while saving money and increasing crop yields.
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Traditionally, farmers have relied on tilling—a method of agitating soil using plows—to aerate the soil, allowing it to catch and keep rainfall better; to clean the soil of weeds; to make the soil more fertile by bringing nutrients to the top; and generally prepare the soil for seeding. Today, many farmers across the United States have turned to conservation tillage, a series of methods that minimize soil disturbance in order to reduce soil erosion.
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