Farmers: Stewards of the environment
You may have noticed on TV, in school or at the grocery store, people saying that the environment needs to be protected. This is because there are over seven billion people on the Earth, and everyone has an impact on the environment through what they eat, use and throw out. Everyone has a responsibility to take care of the environment and make sure that it does not become polluted. If pollution becomes a big problem, there will be no clean water, the air will be hard to breathe and the land will be unusable.
A steward is a person who is in charge of the management of something and is given the responsibility to protect it. Farmers are often called stewards of the land because of the close connection that they have with the land. Their livelihood and way of living depends on their ability to use the land. Therefore it is in the farmers’ best interest to help protect the land because they rely on it.
So how do farmers take care of the environment and be stewards of land, water and air? They do it through many different farming practices. These include such things as conservation, preservation and moderation.
Farmers engage in many different conservation practices that help to preserve the environment. Conservation refers to using less resources and having less of an effect on the land. Practices that farmers use on their farms might include no-till, putting fences around streams, planting cover crops, collecting water runoff, and integrating crop and pasture rotations.
No-till on a farm refers to a practice where farmers do not use tillage methods, such as plowing to disturb the soil (Blanco et al., 2008). When farmers use no-till, they do not disturb the soil until the seed is planted. Things such as old corn stalks and leaves are left on the soil surface (Blanco et al., 2008). No-till helps farmers conserve the soil by not disrupting the soil and leaving it intact so that it cannot be washed away by water or blown away by wind. When soil is preserved, it remains healthier and is better able to support crop growth.
Farmers are now putting up fences around streams, rivers and ponds on their property to keep livestock out of the water. It is important for farmers to keep livestock out of water sources because livestock can disturb the banks and cause the water to become muddy and full of dirt. Livestock can leave waste in the water which adds excessive nutrients to the water like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. An overload of dirt and waste can pollute the water, making it unhealthy for fish and other aquatic species to live. It is extremely important to protect water sources because they serve as a vital source of drinking water. Water from polluted sources can also run into the ocean and harm sea life.
Collecting runoff water from both fields and buildings is an important way that farmers help to stop pollutants from reaching water sources. One program that is helping to keep runoff from entering water is the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative (MRBI). The purpose of MRBI is to work with farmers to implement conservation practices and systems that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff to help improve wildlife habitats and maintain agricultural productivity. It is important to responsibly manage the Mississippi River because it is the largest river in North America and flows over 2,300 miles. The river provides drinking water, recreation, food and serves as a flyway for over 325 species of birds. Therefore it is essential that farmers control runoff from fields and buildings in order to keep this river healthy.
One way that farms can control runoff is by planting cover crops when the fields do not have anything planted in them. A cover crop is a crop that is planted mostly during the winter when most other plants cannot grow. Farmers plant these crops to help stop soil erosion. Cover crops help stop erosion because these plants hold the soil in place with their roots, which means that wind or water cannot wash the soil away. Cover crops also help to increase the organic matter in soil, which increases soil health. Cover crops can be harvested in the spring as a food source for livestock, or they can be plowed into the ground. Farmers also plant buffer zones which are strips of grass between a field and a water body. These buffer zones help to catch any runoff water or waste from the fields. This helps to decrease the amount of dirt that can pollute the water.
Crop and pasture rotations can provide an excellent opportunity for farmers to diversify their fields and manage their land sustainably. When crops are rotated from year to year, it helps to break up insect life cycles which can decrease the need for insecticides. Some crops can even provide benefits to other crops that are planted later. Planting alfalfa in a field provides the soil with nitrogen. That nitrogen can then help corn when it is planted. This saves the farmer money because he or she does not have to apply as much manure or nitrogen fertilizer. Benefits to the environment are also provided because there is less of a chance that nutrients will leak out into the environment. Varel Bailey is an Iowa crop and livestock farmer who rotates his crops of corn and soybean. He also rotates his animals on pasture. He likes the benefits from grass because it is a food source and provides an effective barrier against erosion.
For a list of more conservation practices and programs, visit the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Programs Page.
Preservation in agriculture is another very important form of stewardship. Preservation helps to keep things the way they are, to keep them for future generations and also improve their quality. Farmers can practice preservation in various ways.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a voluntary program for farmers where land is taken out of agricultural production. This land is then left to grow naturally without any type of crop being planted on it. The purpose of CRP is to allow land to build up soil, increase productivity and decrease topsoil erosion. By protecting these areas, wildlife such as birds are able to populate an area and increase the diversity. Native species of plants can also establish themselves in these fields.
There are many farmland preservation programs across the United States, and these programs provide the opportunity to ensure that farmers will own the land for centuries to come. It is becoming increasingly important to protect farmland because many new houses and shopping malls are being built on land that was once farmed. If farms are not preserved, the land could be lost to buildings forever, and people would lose a vital source of food. Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation is one group that is helping to preserve farmland across the state. Pennsylvania is currently the leader in the nation for the number of farms and acres permanently preserved for agricultural production. Currently, 4,229 farms and 457,537 acres have been preserved just in Pennsylvania.
Using less resources and developing new ideas of how to manage the resources on a farm has become one way for farmers to help protect the land. Farmers are also using moderation when it comes to putting nutrients on the land. Farmers realize that putting too much pesticide, insecticide and fertilizer on a field does not help the crops and also can harm the environment. New methods of application have been developed for farmers to decrease their impact on the land.
Best Management Practices help to put the farm’s resources into perspective and help the farmer visualize how those resources can be used best on the farm. Farmers can develop a plan that outlines how resources will be used. By laying out a plan, farmers are able to see if there are certain areas of the farm that can use fewer resources, thereby decreasing the impact of the farm on the environment.
Farmers are able to decrease the use of pesticides and herbicides on their farm by implementing Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The basis for IPM is to use different forms of pest control instead of just using pesticides. IPM takes into account the lifecycle of the pest and uses the weaknesses in the cycle to decrease the number of pests. This can include such things as crop rotation, which helps to break up the lifecycle of a pest. Pests may only eat a certain type of plant, so if a farmer introduces a new type of plant, the pest may no longer have a food source.
Farmers can also introduce insect species into their fields that eat pests. These predator species will help to decrease the number of pests in the fields, which will help to increase the production level of the crop.
Genetically engineered (GE) seeds are another method to decrease pests in fields. Through the use of GE seeds, farmers can reduce the number of pest species because the crops are now resistant to the pests. The pests die because they no longer have a food source.
Crop rotation, predator species and GE crops, along with pesticides, are all parts of IPM. These three alternatives help to decrease the number and amount of pesticides that farmers need to apply to their fields. This has an overall benefit to the environment because fewer harmful chemicals are released.
Farmers are doing their best to be stewards of the land through conservation, preservation and moderation of use of resources.
Blanco, H., & Lal, R. (2008). No-till farming. In Principles of Soil Conservation and Management (pp. 195-221). Netherlands: Springer.