Sustainable Agriculture

The first four generations of our farming history were reviewed in a post back in July, but this current one will concentrate on just the last two generations. The “environment” was not really a factor in the subsistence farming done by the early homesteaders; they were just trying to survive. And, it wasn’t a very important aspect of the bonanza farming done by the children of the homesteaders in the next generation; they were busy trying to make money.

During the next two generations (running from about 1940 to 2020), there was a growing awareness about the significance of environmental concerns on our farm. Out in the wider world, two stereotypes of farming were emerging. Commodity agriculture is generally associated with corporations running huge, extractive operations that usually make good money, but also are hard on the environment and disruptive for existing farm neighborhoods. Organic farming is an alternative approach visualized as small farms that are only marginally economic, but have minimal environmental impacts and tend to foster local communities. However, there is also an emerging middle way that’s being called “sustainable agriculture”. Nether of the two stereotypes applies directly to our farm or to those around us, but sustainable agriculture may be a useful business model.

1978 air photo

About half of our farm has uplands of wind-blown silt covering glacial deposits. This ground is well suited for row crops, mainly corn and beans. The other half of the farm is on the flat floodplain of stream deposits along Kanaranzi Creek. This pastureland has had a tendency to flood, so row crops don’t do so well. But, it’s great for grazing; in fact you can see a bunch of cattle in the middle ground of this photo, which is a view to the northwest. The first farm visible in the background is no longer there and that whole farmyard has now been converted to row-crop. Many of the structures in our farmyard have also been removed (like the barn, windmill, silo and shed near the corn cribs).

Between about 1940 and 1980, a lot of the technical advice came from state and federal agencies. For example, we have a document that is a five-year crop rotation plan dated 1945. It came from the US Department of Agriculture, specifically the Soil Conservation Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a.k.a. NRCS). In the late 1940s, Dad also participated in a federal program to grow seed for brome grass. In those days brome was touted as an important tool in soil conservation because the extensive root system cuts down on erosion. Ironically, now the folks involved in prairie reconstruction hate brome as a non-native, invasive species. Best management practices may change over time, but brome is still great forage in our creek pasture.

1983 air photo

This view to the northeast shows the farmyard buildings more clearly. The pens around the two metal sheds are left over from the time when my brother and I raised sheep. The transition from one generation to the next was complicated when Bob was killed in action in Viet Nam. By the time that this photo was taken, Dad was beginning to relay more on younger neighbors as renters. Those renters did do some innovative things like minimum tillage and rotational grazing. But, the state and federal agencies progressively provided less technical help and emphasized more programs for direct payments that encouraged row-crop development over grassland pastures. At the same time, a lot of the technical information on agrochemicals and genetics was coming directly from the companies that produced the products.

2010 air photo

In this view to the northeast, you can again see cattle out in paddocks designed for rotational grazing and off in the upper right corner there are two fields of row crops set up for two-year rotation. The farmyard has been simplified with the removal of more old buildings; our new house, which was built about ten years earlier, has been added to the picture. By this time most of the technical information was provided to operators by “agronomists” who worked for the large agribusiness corporations that made fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and pharmaceuticals. However, there was an emerging alternative source of information. Nonprofit organizations began advocating for sustainable agricultural practices and several small companies were busy with educating operators about alternatives to the prevailing business model of commodity agriculture. The alternative approaches emphasize profit over production and incorporate environment concerns into the best management practices. The “recipe” for this alternative, sustainable agriculture model could be summarized as cash, conservation, and community. A farming operation must be economically viable, must have minimal adverse effects on the environment, and must foster healthy rural communities. This set of three characteristics is basically the same as the three mandates employed by urban “B-corporations”: profit, planet, and people. Wikipedia describes these b-corps as companies certified for responsible environmental and social performance.

2017 air photo

This most recent view back to the northwest shows basically the same farmyard setup, but there are some more subtle changes. In the lower right corner you can see two of the paddocks seeded to warm season grasses and the black dirt “road” marks the route of the pipeline that now brings in rural water for the cattle. So, these changes are moving the operation in the direction of a “grass farm”. In the last couple of years, sustainable agriculture has picked up some new emphasis and undergone some clear shifts in meaning. Cover crops and soil health have been part of our operation for several years, but now sustainable ag, seems to be morphing into something new called ”regenerative agriculture”.

During the COVID year of 2020, two companies in particular have pushed the idea of regenerative ag. They’re basically responding to a perceived market demand for products beyond just organic. One company kicked off a social media campaign with a documentary that featured some of the original people who encouraged sustainable ag. However, that company is now mainly emphasizing advocacy and education; there’s not many specifics for our farm.  The second company includes old-guard environmental nonprofits and big multinational food corporations. They’re trying to develop a certification process that will lead to marketing environmental services credits similar to the more established carbon credits. It’s an interesting concept, but their initial demonstration farms aren’t near us. And, they don’t have anything developed yet that we can incorporate into our operation.

So, what sustainable ag practices are we doing on this family farm? Mostly we’re following the lead of our renters and doing things that the previous generation did. We know that these things work: crop rotation, minimum tillage, and rotational grazing that integrates livestock into the operation. We’re also encouraging new approaches like cover crops and soil health. This translates to using cattle as “combines” to harvest the grass crop, increasing the biodiversity in the paddocks, and minimizing expensive inputs like agrichemicals and pharmaceuticals. The idea is to emphasize profits over production because it’s better to sign the back of a check for deposit than the front of the check paying for inputs.

Best management practices in agriculture are like nutrition and health care guidelines: as the science evolves, the guidelines and practices change. A friend who is a linguist teaching the Dakota language recently taught me the word hdihunni which means to go and come back around again. That’s the way our land management is working out. We’re using old ideas, but adding some new twists that are compatible with the things that we know have worked in the past.

 Earlier this month I gave a talk at Augustana University’s Dakota Conference on sustainable agriculture as it’s been used on our family farm and that presentation forms the basis for this post. If you want some specifics on the two new companies that are pushing for regenerative agriculture, please use the “Reply” section below to post your questions.

About Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek

Recovering academic, earth scientist in phased retirement, farm manager by default, son, husband, father, grandfather.
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