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Midlands Voices: These practical ag innovations help the environment

Midlands Voices: These practical ag innovations help the environment

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When I started farming in 1973, the idea that within a few decades we would need to drastically change our surrounding ecosystem never entered my mind. Yet, here we are in 2020, trying to endure a global pandemic and reeling from the effects of either too much or too little rainfall. In retrospect, there were clues climate change would severely impact us in the Midwest and that our farming systems would be inadequately prepared.

Fifty years ago, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously told farmers to “plant fence-row to fence-row” and “get big or get out” amid new lucrative trade with the Soviet Union. This would set in motion the destruction of crop diversity and the mass movement of livestock into confined feeding systems. In the Midwest, corn and soybeans essentially became the only crops grown, placing tremendous pressures on soils to increase yields, while substantially tapping aquifers for irrigation and draining wetlands to farm every last acre. This year, we needed that water in Nebraska and Iowa.

Instead of clinging to indifferent attitudes toward climate change, we all must embrace the challenges it poses. On our family farm, we have demonstrated research that shows a diversified array of crops and livestock, while utilizing perennial crops, trees and pastures can mitigate drought effects while protecting our soils. We have also chosen to get more carbon back into our soils, planting trees, shrubs and prairie grass on terraces and along our steams. Trees are carbon dioxide-consuming juggernauts, capturing more than 48 pounds in a single year. It will take more than planting trees however, as human activity puts about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

So what else can we farmers do? No-till and cover crops are certainly a good step, but the adoption rate will have to increase exponentially for it to have significant impact. This means we need more perennials and deep-rooted plants. Crop rotations beyond soybeans and corn are also critical to reduce dependence on chemicals and fertilizers. Producing synthetic fertilizers is a significant contributor to global emissions. We get that important nutrient through crop rotations, including nitrogen-fixing legumes and composted livestock manure, something we have successfully utilized since 1983. We plant various grains like oats, winter rye, wheat, barley and field peas to rotate with our corn and soybeans and forages to improve soil quality and break pest cycles. We plant cover crops after our grains are harvested so that the ground is covered year around.

Iowa State University research has clearly shown that a rotation including small grains and a legume hay or cover crop along with corn and soy can be more profitable than just corn and soy. Not only are they good feeds but the straw could be used to move toward solid manure systems instead of the liquid manure systems that have been so problematic because of the smell, runoff and methane produced by them. Methane is a key greenhouse gas that pound for pound is 25 times greater than C02 over a 100-year period. If the manure was composted with straw, the methane and smell of liquid manure would be largely eliminated and soil quality would be improved.

Additionally, why not consume more locally sourced food? It is another important process to lower climate impacts of shipping food long distances. We have had our own certified organic meat, egg and popcorn business for many years, with an on-farm store and a local foods restaurant in our county seat town.

To decrease farming’s impact on our changing climate seems a daunting task. We have been historically encouraged to overproduce, rewarded by subsidies for mono-cropped commodities, pushed to get bigger and forced to endure low prices. We have not been sufficiently motivated to be better stewards of the land and protect our soils and climate. The decisions we make today as farmers will have a significant impact on what our climate future will look like. Recently we created a farm pond to attract waterfowl but also to provide emergency irrigation, something I had no idea would be necessary 50 years ago. We have to act now and be willing to see this crisis and sustainably adapt to it.

Ron Rosmann lives in Harlan, Iowa.

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