A Virtual Tour of Tomorrow’s Super-Sustainable Farm (Part 2)

Planting a no-till crop through residue

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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. 

Transition Specialists

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.

Super Seed

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.

Conclusions

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.  

 

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Spring planting image from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

 

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)
  • M.S. Patterson

    Hello again, Steve!

    Can’t say I have much beef with any of the suggestions; they all amount to good sense.
    Application of them -as a system- won’t be easy,
    especially the political bits.

    Up-front investment is really the only potential problem I see, and most of those costs can be managed:

    The cost of conversion to the automated steering systems suggested seems something of an obstacle, but I’d guess it’s actually pretty small compared to cost of an actual combine/harvester/tractor/etc. It also seems likely that subsidies could be readily procured for that sort of thing.

    Large scale soil sampling could be automated, precision fertilizer apply equipment can be rented, or supplied by the landowner, subsidized, or owned by a group of small farmers. And so on.

    Pesticide over-use is something else that needs to be addressed for a truly super-sustainable system, but that can be addressed by implementing Integrated Pest Management (which should already be is use anyway, like a great many of the other things you suggested).

    The real challenge lies with the political and educational work needed to develop the necessary programs and incentives, as you’ve highlighted. And will simply take time, and motivated individuals on the ground, doing the work.

    All in all, I much prefer taking the positive approach, as you’ve done here!

    Next up perhaps, the benefits of producing Syn-gas and biochar from agricultural waste?

  • “benign chemical herbicides”

    Calling some of the most toxic substances known to man benign is a new one on me.

  • russ

    Excellent article Steve!

    This is sustainability in real time as compared to most of what is published!

    @Gregg – İ believe that ricin is a natural substance – by your definition does that make it good?

  • This is wonderful.

    Recently, I read an article about a group of permaculturists who started a no irrigation food forest near the red sea.

    This is just one more reson for hope.

    One of the things that I don’t like is the separation of ownership of the land and people who rent the land.

    This is a level of cost that in the long run will always keep costs higher than necessary.

    Because as time goes on and the land changes hands, each new owner will want to raise the rates.

    You probably all can see how that can be solved but in the long run it never will unless it is pointed out.

    But overall this a great article.

    I would have liked to know how much water is saved in irrigation. It looks like this could be a solution to California’s water problem since the fight is for agriculture water and city water.

    Anyway, I love this.

  • Greg,
    Actually Mother Nature makes many far more toxic compounds like aflatoxin. These chemicals are intensely regulated and the EPA uses a 100x safety threshold for human and environmental exposure. I was just reading about how organic almond growers control weeds without herbicides. They use a propane flame weeder and use 49.5 gallons of LPG/acre/year

    Bob,
    I agree that land ownership is best, but that tends to be a bigger investment than most farmers can swing. Also land prices can be influenced by development potential, mineral rights etc. Land rents usually reflect the yield potential better. There may be a wave of land sales coming because of changes in tax law.

  • MS Patterson,
    Thanks for the comment. I agree that part of the challenge is government policy. Interestingly, these sorts of sustainable practices are much more widely employed today in South America and Australia. There they don’t have crop subsidies and farmers tend to own the land. I will probably write about biochar, but I’m still trying to evaluate the economics (even the char has fuel value so that may always be the most attractive use vs as a soil amendment)

  • Most of us understand that herbicides and pesticides are very toxic. As long as we still buy food full of herbicides, farmers will keep using them. That’s why Steve made a large point about preventing runoff. If herbicides were really benign, then runoff wouldn’t pollute the environment and farmers wouldn’t worry about their drinking water.

    Steve, it wouldn’t surprise me at all that industrial organic almond farming is bad for the environment. When we let faceless corporations control our basic needs, we’ve lost our ability to demand environmental protection.

  • erin

    If this system is more eco-friendly than organic (which it may well be – you have some good arguments, and I don’t have enough background to really know), how can one create a similar labeling system?
    Like many folks, I buy a bag of organic food in the store because I believe that on average, it’ll have less pesticide/herbicide residues to feed my family, and a lower impact on the environment.
    If you’re right, a farmer using the system you describe may produce “conventional” food that is more sustainable than “organic.” But in the store, I can’t tell the difference between Sarah’s corn, and the least sustainable sort of conventional farming.
    Is it possible to bring the power of the consumer to bear in helping switch land to these more sustainable methods?

  • Greg, “herbicides and pesticides” are not uniformly toxic. Many are less toxic to us than table salt. They are obviously toxic to pests, but modern ones are amazingly non-toxic to us and to other non-target organisms. We don’t buy food “full of herbicides” because those are applied very early in the growing season, are not that toxic in the first place, and have certainly broken down long before harvest. The reason I made a point about runoff is that a field that does not erode does not cause multiple problems starting with silt but also including fertilizer and pesticide residues. Also, if the rain does not “run off” it is stored there for future crop growth. I don’t apologize at all for wanting this.

    As for “faceless corporations” controlling our basic needs – please explain how that happens. I don’t know of any “faceless” corporations.

  • Erin,
    You have stated a fantastic question, “Is it possible to bring the power of the consumer to bear in helping switch land to these more sustainable methods.”

    I really wish there was a way to do this, but the “band width” for consumer pressure has been very effectively focused on “Organic” and it has become such a super brand that I doubt that it would ever be possible to supplant it with something different.

    I’m planning a blog post about the 20th anniversary of the effort to define the rules of Organic. I’ll talk about what that could have been vs what it is today.

  • Tom Borland

    Hi,
    I have been involved, on and off, in the development of herbicides and No Tillage in South Africa and Zimbabwe since 1965. I made an extensive tour of the USA (sponsored by the Grain and Cotton Producer’s Associations of Rhodesia) in 1975 specifically to study developments in no tillage in the USA. I visited and was conducted around by research workers in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and Georgia, which included a visit to the then no tillage farming expert, Harry Young in Kentucky.
    I recently “escaped” from Zimbabwe and am now retired and live in Wales.
    It may be of interest to you to know that No Tillage farming, or as it is now more favourably referred to as Conservation Tillage or Agriculture/Farming, was popular amongst a number of progressive farmers in Zimbabwe, now sadly “kicked off” their farms, from as early as 1980.’s. Amongst these farmers was one Brian Oldrieve who successfully no till farmed a total of 3500 hectares of cotton, soyabeans and maize in rotation and irrigated wheat/soyas in rotation.
    You may be interested to know that Brian, a devout Christian, still remains in Zimbabwe, despite having been driven off his farm, and is now behind an incredible “Evangelic” movement operating throughout Southern, Central and East Africa, which is promoting Conservation farming – Farming God’s Way” amongst millions of rural folk. You can look up the BLOG page “farming god’s way” on google.
    Are you aware of the group of scientists at FAO who are promoting Conservation Agriculture worldwide?
    Tom Borland

  • Tom,
    That example of no-till for small holder farms is excellent. It is sad how things went in Zimbabwe, but encouraging that Brian Oldrieve is helping so many people. No-till has also taken off for the small farmers of Brazil. You met some of the real pioneers of no-till on that US trip!