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Measuring Sustainability on the Farm

June 18, 2009
Article contributed by Dave Legvold, Minnesota corn and soybean farmer
 
Source: USDA-NRCS, Lynn BettsThe other day I was planting corn in my freshly strip-tilled ground, reveling in the beauty of all the crop residue from last year’s soybeans that served to protect and hold the soil. It does not take a whole lot to make a no-till farmer happy—lots of residue from last year’s crop will do the trick. I stopped at the end of the field to take a phone call from a college student who was finishing up the last details of a field biology class with a focus on agriculture. She asked, “Do you use sustainable farming practices?”

I responded, “Could you please define what you mean by sustainable?”

Her response was quick and simple, “Sure, it means you don’t use chemicals, you plow in lots of cover crops, and you don’t raise just corn and soybeans all the time”.

I revealed to her that I was a “recovering organic farmer.” Further explanation pointed out that my early efforts to be an organic corn, wheat, hay and soybean producer did not fit my land very well. The yearly plowing of soil to prepare for planting and seasonal cultivation to keep weeds out promoted serious erosion on my hilly lands. I realized that my organic production plan was not sustainable if the topsoil was being washed away. Over several years I developed skills in no-till farming, use of low-rate chemical weed control and strict crop rotation. I believed that saving soil and keeping raindrops where they fall was important and attainable through the use of best management practices that fit my farm. Over the years the character of the soil changed to that of something like chocolate cake and the macro-invertebrate population continued to explode. And…I was experiencing good return with reduced fuel use and a small machinery inventory.

I revealed to her that I was a “recovering organic farmer”…I realized that my organic production plan was not sustainable if the topsoil was being washed away.
The student and I agreed that the use of the word sustainable is pretty hard to get a handle on. Rather, I tend to think about practices that yield conservation performance that are observable and measurable. Conservation performance can apply to large-scale agriculture, community supported agriculture, organic production, animal agriculture, backyard gardens, and many other activities associated with producing the things we need from the land. Conservation performance implies a light footprint on the land and a non-degradational lifestyle as well as assuring that the folks who live downstream from our farms will see clean water that carries less sediment and nutrients.

Some of today’s conservation efforts are put in place by government programs that pay a part of the expense that farmers incur to put certain practices on the land. The accepted thought is that these practices will do some good. The missing component is measuring performance. Preserving a healthy production system carries with it many definitions. Perhaps there are as many definitions as there are people who work the land in their unique way to meet their needs and to assure the future productivity of the land and human systems. Future generations will size up our conservation performance to see if we passed on healthy land and water that will sustain them.

The Conservation PlannerThis article is from the June 2009 issue of The Conservation Planner, a publication of The Minnesota Project. Click here to download the entire issue and explore past issues >>

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