Part 1 of this post described what you could see while riding along in the tractor on a super-sustainable farm of the near future (only text in red describes things that are not already fully available to farmers). Our guide is Sarah, a 24 year-old intern on the Gordon family farm in Iowa. We have already learned about the special systems employed here to improve the soil and to make it more productive and “drought proof.”
The Risk Hurdle
Sarah explains that the field we are in has been under Mark Gordon’s care for 6 years. The first 4-5 of those years were difficult. Until he could get the soil restored by these practices he was exposed to certain risks. The untilled, not dark brown soil retained water better, but in a year with a cold spring that meant a soil that remained cold and wet so that there could be a challenge getting the seeds, particularly the corn seeds, germinated and growing. After these many years of improving the soil, this field is actually suitable for planting earlier than others, but that took time.
Mark has become somewhat of an expert on how to deal with these “transition” risks. He specializes in converting land to this super sustainable system and that is what Sarah wants to learn to do. The problem is that it takes 4-6 years of serious investment in time and money to improve a field to this degree. There are very real yield risks during that time. This is why many growers that use no-till for the soybeans in their rotation go back to conventional tillage for their corn. Mark and Sarah are glad that a coalition of equipment, chemical and seed companies have pulled together to set up an insurance and technical support system to help farmers like Mark and Sarah do the hard work of transitioning conventionally farmed land into the sort of “drought-proofed” and environmentally beneficial land that is possible.
The Investment Hurdle
Getting a field to function like this one takes a multi-year investment. There has been a huge barrier to the American farmers who would otherwise want to make that investment. A very large proportion of the land they farm is not theirs; it is land they lease (40% nation-wide, 80+% of farmers in the key “corn-belt” states rent some or all of their land). This is most commonly a lease from the families from the community who have long since moved to the cities for other career opportunities. The fact remains that it is irrational to make a long-term investment in the growing potential of land that might be farmed next year by someone else who slightly out-bid you for the lease.
A New Land Lease Model
Fortunately, a coalition of environmental NGOs conducted a “landlord enlightenment” program and designed new lease models that make it economically viable for folks like the Gordons, or Sarah in the future, to do the hard work of transitioning fields and then being able to share in the increased profit potential of those fields even if they are not the ones who rent them. These new leases require the new tenants to practice the same “cover cropping,” “controlled wheel traffic”, “no-till” and “precision fertilization” practices, but after the transition these are not only easier to do, they benefit the new farmer’s bottom line.
Sarah explains that the corn seed she is now planting is extraordinary. It has amazing yield potential and stress tolerance because of continuous improvements by the seed companies achieved through “marker assisted breeding” (MAB) . With this advanced, biotechnology system the breeders can track dozens of key, natural, corn genes as well as several GMO traits that protect the corn from key insect pests, make it easy to control weeds and enhance the nitrogen use-efficiency of the crop . The seeds have been treated with several chemicals that protect the young seedlings for the critical first weeks of growth (protection from fungi, insects and nematodes). The chemicals themselves are mostly less toxic than table salt, but because they are being delivered this way the total amount being applied to each acre is around 3 ounces.
The farms that Sarah and the Gordons will tend have no essentially no erosion, extremely low ground and surface water pollution, high energy efficiency and a net, negative “carbon footprint.” They support amazing biodiversity both above and below ground. They are tremendously productive even in drier years. There is no other form of row crop farming, including Organic, that can achieve all these things. This is a type of farming that could be applied on many hundreds of millions of acres in the developed world. Significant adaptations of this approach are possible for small-holder agriculture in the developing world. All the key components of this system are possible today and the largest barriers to wide-spread adoption (the transition risk and the lease issues) are potentially manageable.
This is the direction that needs to be supported through farm policy and by the sustainable sourcing efforts of food companies and retailers. This is the direction that should be supported by NGOs that are serious about sustainability. This is the sort of farming we need to feed the world in an age of climate change and still-growing world population.
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Spring planting image from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.