Will soil conservation still prevail?
What would agriculture look like if the average farmer had money? Hopefully, many already know what that looks like. But today’s unprecedented commodity prices and rising land values have opened that door for many more producers to have some financial breathing room.
The first items on their list are probably land, equipment, grain storage, tile drainage and capital improvements they’ve been dreaming of — basically, investments that will position their enterprise for future prosperity.
• What conservation practices will be used if there’s no federal incentive programs?
• Sustainability and profitability are not opposite ends of the pendulum.
• Farmers have come to know that taking care of the land does pay them back.
Many producers are concerned that investments in conservation practices are far down the list. But let’s look through another door: What and how many conservation practices will be invested in if producers are not as financially reliant on federal incentive programs?
A direction is chosen
Most have already figured out where they want to be regarding soil conservation, tillage and residue management. As herbicide technologies emerged and new equipment was designed, residue management has been paired up with one-pass efficiency.
I don’t hear anyone wanting to go back to mold board plowing. But continuous and 100% no-till is not prevalent either. The pendulum has landed in the middle where efficiency, soil conservation and profitability have coalesced.
Fortunately, the common sense that farmers innately understand about the complicated interaction of systems on farms has probably put them into a more sustainable situation than policy and regulations could have achieved.
Is it perfect? No, but what is? There is no room left to focus on single resource issues anymore, we have only to seek the routes that provide the fewest and least harmful unintended consequences in a very dynamic biological system: agriculture.
It seems that sustainability and profitability are not opposite ends of the pendulum, but have met in the middle.
From that lesson it would seem that farmers have come to know that taking care of the land does pay them back while also preparing the next generation for the future.
How did we get here?
So how did farmers land in the right spot that maximizes the positives and minimizes the negatives? Did policy, cost share or regulation create this? Or did farmer ingenuity prevail?
Let’s consider another example. Buffer strips along riparian areas have long been encouraged but seem sparse in the landscape.
A producer shared with me that he has planted miles of buffer strips at his own expense. In so doing, he planted vegetation that is harvested as cattle feed and he planted the buffers to the width that matches his equipment.
If the pendulum swung a little farther in a direction for wildlife, he might have received federal assistance but lost flexibility for his farm system. In the end, the watershed has garnered some, but not every, environmental benefit at no cost to the taxpayer, while the farmer has found that balance between common sense, flexibility, profitability and conservation.
Another producer might want to graze these areas — and what an alarm that would set off with cattle damaging the integrity of the banks. Yes, that could happen. But what producer, after spending time and money to establish a buffer, is going to risk livestock damaging it?
The producer will move the livestock in and out quickly. He or she will also do this when the vegetation is at its prime, which is generally past the wet spring season, which is also the time when dry conditions will cause the least damage from hoofs; therefore, the banks are not destroyed due to timing and management.
Vegetation will be renewed with the grazing and cutting; brushy species will be discouraged; and the livestock will ingest nutrition that was otherwise going to waste.
What will future bring?
So, will producers invest in conservation in the future? Will they make good decisions if they are not financially inclined to rely on the government? Is there an entity out there more adept at system’s management than a farmer? Are the chances for new incentives or tax breaks that can provide enough flexibility for farmers to be nimble and keep up with the fast-paced needs of consumers and grocery retailers?
What can history tell us has and hasn’t work? And what would have happened anyway, just because it made producers profitable, now that they have learned that the soil is the ultimate profit center?
Rector is an MSU Extension Educator. Reach her at [email protected].
This article published in the March, 2011 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.