Yesterday I talked about why the organic label isn’t an indication of “rightness” when it comes to farming practices. As I mentioned, in order to provide some specific examples of how conventional farmers are also using some of the same practices that many believe define organic production, I surveyed a group of conventional growers. I asked seven questions and got responses from 11 conventional farmers from across the US. Verbatim answers are below (not all, because some had similar answers.) Caveat: this is in no way meant to be a study, I understand it’s a small, volunteer-based sample, but I hope it helps some people understand that organic production is not the only way to farm sustainably.
Before we get into those examples, though, let’s talk a little about one thing that will come up in their answers: tillage. Tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground) is one way that farmers prepare the soil for crops. It does a number of things, one of which is to mechanically destroy weeds – and killing weeds is important because they steal resources (like water and nutrients) from crops and reduce efficiency. There are many benefits to tilling like incorporating nutrients into the soil, but there are also disadvantages such as release of carbon into the atmosphere and increased erosion. No-till and reduced-till agriculture has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, and maintains soil structure. Conventional farmers use herbicides to kill weeds instead of tilling, which is something that organic farmers can’t do. (To be clear, tilling does not eliminate the need for herbicides, many farmers who till still use herbicides.) One of the farmers I reached out to said, “On a national level, the switch to no-till is huge in terms of environmental benefits. Carbon is stored in the ground and not released into the atmosphere, and secondly, erosion is drastically reduced. These two things alone makes conventional farming (with the use of no-till) superior environmentally to organic – at least on a large scale, as it is very difficult to farm organically without relying on cultivation for weed management.”
Ok, the Q&A. It’s long, but worth the read.
Question #1: Do you use cover crops? (Note for readers: Things that are grown when a farmer is not growing a crop to sell. Advantages: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression, soil amendment.)
- Yes, we use cereal rye, hairy vetch, or tillage radish for cover crops
- We have done both cover and not. We prefer cover crops out of convenience. Who wants their seeds blown away with all of your top soil?
- We have just planted oats as a cover crop. We harvested peas in the field this year and are planning on putting in radishes in the spring. By planting the oats, we capture any remaining nutrients, which will be held by the oat crop. When we spray out the oats in the spring those nutrients will then be released back into the soil and will be available to the radish crop. Furthermore, having a crop growing keeps the soil “alive.” There is another whole layer of life in the soil in form of various microbes, and they are kept healthy by having a growing crop at all times.
- We use cover crops and use soil samples to see what the soil and crop needs
- No. There are not many/any economically viable cover crop options in our area. We do “rest” ground by putting it through a three year alfalfa rotation.
- Sometimes. Everything we do is about conserving moisture – cover crops use moisture. It takes six inches of water to get wheat to a point it will help as a cover crop.
Question #2: Do you use crop rotation? (Note for readers: this is the opposite of a mono-crop – not growing the same thing on the same field year after year. Advantages: keeping pests and disease in check, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, soil health)
- Yes, we rotate crops. We’re in a ten year battle over raising canola because we’re looking for crop rotations that are good fits
- Don’t most people? Grow too much of the same thing, and it is like watching inbreeding!
- Oh yes. We grow ten different crops. We rotate according to market demands, crop history, weed history, soil needs. Our soils are in excellent condition.
- Yes, we rotate our corn and soybeans every year, and we no-till.
- Yes, intensively. Typically winter wheat, corn, safflower or sunflowers, malt barley. If needed we’ll then go to summer fallow or back to wheat. Also this would be when we’d put ground in alfalfa and leave it for a few years.
Question #3: Do you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? (Note for readers: the strategy behind IPM is to try to control pests before they become a problem using things like beneficial insect populations and judicious use of pesticides.)
- On our farm we hardly use insecticides because of crop rotation and the use of GMO crops.
- We keep beneficial insect habitats in place
- Yes, we use a variety of chemicals from different groups to avoid resistance issues, including organic options if that is the best fit, soil tillage or lack thereof (no-till). Several oat varieties we grow naturally suppress nematode activity, and we pay attention to protecting/enhancing beneficial insect populations.
- To an extent. Not very formally, but we have a crop consultant who advises us, and we never blindly spray, just because we are told. We often weigh the cost/benefit of spraying. We don’t release natural predators, but we do consider carefully if it is worth spraying.
- I have used IPM for decades. That is one thing that drives me up a wall about internet farmers. They come up these ideas that farmers have done for decades
Question #4: How do you limit pesticide use?
- First off, pesticides are expensive, so we don’t want to use any more than we have to from a financial perspective. Furthermore, when we chose which crop to grow, we take into account the history of the field, and if we can predict a weed or insect problem, we may chose not to grow that crop, or to grow it in a different location. Also, by planting wheat later in the year, we can avoid aphids. We may choose to plant a variety that we know has better disease resistance thereby potentially eliminating a fungicide spray.
- We never use more then we should on herbicides, it’s not beneficial to the crop, soil, environment, and it’s expensive! When we spray we always choose a day with little wind and cooler weather. We are always mindful of where it may drift.
- We grow non-organic oats and alfalfa, which get sprayed with nothing. Our Roundup ready corn and soy get sprayed as minimally as possible.
- We raise GMO crops, scout fields, apply as needed – for insecticide when the count per plant reaches a specific threshold, and for herbicides we use the maximum rate (really cuts down on the need for additional applications which in the end is less pesticide) and time it so that other methods (canopy of rows) controls weeds.
- Scout fields – especially when looking for pests to see if they meet at economic threshold for applying pesticides
- We use bt corn and cotton. When we don’t have to spray for worms we don’t kill off beneficial insects and then we don’t have to spray for secondary pests such as spider mites.
Question #5: Do you reuse by-products or take advantage of other farms’ by-products?
- We run cattle too, so after we combine our grass seed, we bale straw for winter feed/bedding, and also bale wheat straw for bedding. Once straw is gone and fields start to re-grow, we use them as summer pasture. Also, a silly example – we got five goats to eat brush. When we bale alfalfa, I pick up the alfalfa the rake missed into a garbage can and take one to the goats every night until the alfalfa gets too big to drive on.
- We try to keep our straw on the farm and just chop the straw finely. In the end of the hot summer it shades the soil, keeping it a little cooler and helps retain a little moisture and protects the plants and soil a little from the intense late summer heat. As it breaks down it adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
- I graze all of my grain crops. Reduces tillage.
- Examples from farms I’ve visited for my Farming in Focus series:
- Lynn Trupp (March – sheep farmer) uses spent brewers’ grain that he gets for free from a local brewery.
- Brenda Frketich (April – nine different crops) has an arrangement with a nearby cattle farmer where he cleans up her field by baling leftover plant material from the pea harvest and feeds it to his cows.
- Marie Bowers Stagg (July – wheat) bales up leftover wheat stubble and sends it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms.
- Ben Coleman (August – hops) composts leftover plant material and spreads it back on the fields.
Question #6: If you use irrigation, are there ways you’ve made it more efficient? (And other thoughts on water)
- We adopt new technologies and are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. We’ve gone from flood irrigation to sprinklers to sprinklers heads in bubble modes. Those sprinklers are 97 percent efficient. This year I am installing drip irrigation. Very expensive but it is almost 100 percent efficient.
- We have done drip, sprinkler, and flood. We now have 100 acres on the underground drip that uses the same amount of water that used to only flood about 40 acres. Using the low drops on the sprinkler has been an excellent upgrade for our 160 acres of alfalfa. As far as water efficiency, the drip is better than the pivot sprinkler and a bizillion times better than flood.
- We have linears with low flow, drop tubes if possible rather than hard hose big guns as they are much more efficient (Sara’s note for the reader: “linears” are big spraying metal arms held between two wheels that slowly rolls across a field and waters from above. “Big guns” are stationary single pivots that water in a circle like you might do in your lawn.) We also have a field in wheat that has a few gently, rolling hills in it and must be worked before planting green beans, so in that field we are leaving all the wheat residue. When we work the soil in the spring, that wheat residue will provide a nice amount of mulch around the surface, which will help prevent the water from running down the hills.
- We use drip irrigation. We manage storm water through installing roof run off management, critical area stabilization, a heavy use area, woodland management, and structures for water control, including a sediment control pond that has been in use for over 60 years. We use stream fencing to exclude livestock from accessing local streams. Our detailed Nutrient Management Plan is evaluated and updated every three years to address the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into local groundwater that feeds into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We continue to remain vigilant and do our best to monitor and improve the watershed and soil health of our property.
Question #7: How do you preserve soil quality?
- We soil test before making fertilizer blends.
- We currently hold the award for farmers of the year in soil and water conservation for our region in Iowa and enroll in as many conservation stewardship programs as possible to preserve soil quality and minimize pesticide use. By lowering boom height on sprayers, having wider buffer zones from waterways, using no-till methods and cover crops, keeping beneficial insect habitats in place, etc. we are pretty proud of our farm practices.
- Over the last 30 years our conventional farm has been inducted into our state Ag Hall of Fame and been awarded our county Soil Conservation Farm of the year (twice!) and Small Business of the Year, partially for our work in improving our farm to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
- We use a variety of methods for soil quality – soil testing, amendments, micronutrient application, minimum and no-till when applicable.
- This is huge to us. Our farm was not in great shape when we bought it, and we have put so much into improving the soil. The biggest issue to us was low pH, so we have put on lots of lime and our pH levels are now perfect for what we grow. This is important as nutrients in the soil are more available to the plant when you have the right pH. Furthermore, we switched to mostly no-till. This turned out to have huge, unexpected benefits to the soil. Increased earth worm activity, increased organic matter which improves water holding capacity and makes the soil more “mellow.”
- We do conventional tillage but our equipment leaves a lot of plant material on the surface to control erosion (54 mph winds yesterday and the soil wasn’t blowing), we use field tile to control surface runoff, we have buffer strips along waterways. We also don’t remove plant matter (corn and soybean stalks) but till it in.
- We are exclusively no-till and have been for 15 years. We keep water ways and highly erodible land in grass. We soil test and apply nutrients accordingly. We also use a stripper header for our cereal grains which leaves 99 percent of the crop residue in the field.
- No-til when possible which greatly reduces soil erosion. We soil tests every year and put on compost and manure.
That’s all for the Q&A – I hope you learned a few cool things. I’ll leave you with a final thought on sustainable farming from one of the farmers who responded, “Personally, I’m in favor of taking the very best out of all management systems and combining them to suit your own farm. We can do best for our farms and soils if we adapt our management based on our own situation, and not get tied into a set of inflexible rules. I have nothing against organic agriculture. In a lot of ways, organic farmers have done a better job of nourishing and protecting their soil than conventional farmers, but I think conventional farmers are catching up. We can always learn to do better, and that is one of the things that is really exciting about being a farmer.”