Every year on Earth Day, many people pledge to live more “sustainably.” Commuters promise to carpool more often. Homeowners vow to feed themselves from a garden they’ll soon start. Politicians make sure someone snaps a picture of them planting a tree. These folks are all filled with good intentions. For me, sustainability means the ability to stay in business using the best practices available to preserve a farm my children will want to come back to and raise their families someday.
Farmers, who treat every day as Earth Day, seldom receive credit for their environmental stewardship. Actions taken to improve the soil or clean the water have an immediate cost to the farmer, yet the benefits accrue to distant consumers, whether 100 miles downstream or a century in the future. As a farmer enrolled in the Soil Health Partnership, I’d like to tell you what farmers are doing every day to improve the environment in which we raise our families and earn our living.
Cereal rye, oats, legumes and other species can grow early in the spring or late in the fall when corn or soybeans aren’t present to protect otherwise bare ground. These cover crops help keep soil from blowing or washing away and use up nutrients that might otherwise be inadvertently lost to air or water. No-till farming, which doesn’t disturb the soil during planting, improves the soil structure so that more rainfall soaks into the soil, making it available for a future dry spell. I use both of these practices, which increase the soil’s organic matter content, furthering the availability of nutrients and reducing the need for commercial fertilizer. Another soil-builder I use is animal manure, an excellent organic fertilizer and a crucial part of sustainability — the original recycling effort.
For these environmentally beneficial practices, and more, I can easily calculate my costs. I know how much money is spent on seed for cover crops or how expensive it is to build terraces to halt erosion. However, it’s hard to put a value on the soil or nutrients that don’t leave my farm. The data gathered by the Soil Health Partnership, a farmer-led initiative of the National Corn Growers Association, will quantify the long-term economic benefits of reducing soil loss and improving nutrient cycling. For example, am I saving $10 per acre of nutrients or $20 per acre of soil? Perhaps I’m earning a few dollars each year by slowly increasing the organic matter content. Good soil tilth, with its improved water drainage and storage capacities, could easily pay for itself in wet and dry years. Preserving this land to feed future generations? Priceless.
Farmers everywhere are using all the tools available to become the best stewards of their land.
Scientists at Iowa State University developed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy a few years ago to reduce nitrate and phosphorous leaving farm fields and cities. Farmers and agribusiness created INREC, the Iowa Nutrient Research & Education Council, which the Legislature has tasked with educating farmers and monitoring the adoption of science-based practices that reduce fertilizer runoff. The Iowa Corn Growers Association has supported every bill that funds water quality work, including the voter-approved, three-eighths-cent sales tax. The Iowa Ag Water Alliance works to accelerate farm conservation by developing resources and coordinating efforts. All of the farmers, scientists, educators, government and association officials involved in these organizations treat every day as Earth Day.
In the 150 years since Bremer County was settled, we’ve lost over half of the estimated 6 feet of original topsoil. It takes 500 years to create just 1 inch of soil, so I consider it a wise investment to retain the good dirt I have left. And surely, the cleaner water leaving my land is worth something to someone farther downstream. Believe it or not, our water is cleaner now than it was 50 years ago. And long before corn became Iowa’s leading crop, both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers were called “The Big Muddy.”
I’m proud to be a steward of the earth, from the ground up.
• Mark Mueller of Waverly serves on the board of directors of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.