On August 12, I joined farm conservation professionals from across the country for a tour of farms in southeast Minnesota, organized by the Conservation Technology Information Center. Any chance to get out in the field is great, and this tour in particular helped showcase what farmers, of all different types, are doing to help protect water quality, improve soil health, and ensure the continued economic integrity of their operations.
Our first stop was a vegetable farming cooperative in Hastings, MN that is run by the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). Specialty crops depend on pollinators for good yields. If a pollinator doesn’t get to that squash blossom, you aren’t getting any squash. HAFA is partnering with Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab to establish beehives onsite that can help pollinate the diverse vegetable crops HAFA is growing. The bees get access to food, and the farmers see healthier yields. A win-win. Plus, honey!
Our tour continued on to a VERY different operation. Where the HAFA farm was small and the crops diverse, Bruce Peterson’s farm was what you’d think of when you think of the contemporary corn farmer. From a small farm started in 1930, the Peterson operation has grown to 6,000 acres, 5,000 hogs a year, and 20 steers. This farm is about efficiency on a grand scale, using tools that farmers could only dream of just a decade ago. Working with precision farming experts from DuPont Pioneer, the Petersons are putting down fertilizer in the right place, at the right time, in the right amount to maximize crop yields while minimizing any lost nitrogen. Every pound of nitrogen that doesn’t get taken up by the plant has to go somewhere – into the ditch, the groundwater, or the air. That’s a financial loss too, since fertilizer costs money. So by using precision tools across the farm, the Petersons are saving money while protecting the environment. Another win-win.
From the Petersons, we journeyed a little further south to Dave Legvold’s farm in Northfield, MN. Well known in the Minnesota farm community, Dave farms about 800 acres, including farmland owned by St. Olaf College (Um! Yah! Yah!). Dave is a strong advocate for soil health and believes that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. A soil pit dug by the U of MN Extension Service provided proof. Dave’s farming methods, such as strip tillage and cover crops, has resulted in a beautiful soil texture that drains well and is almost entirely free of compaction issues. Years of stewardship has built up a healthy soil environment that pays Dave back every harvest.
Further stops included a cattle farm in Kenyon and a dairy farm in Goodhue. Planting pollinator friendly pasture improved forage for Phil and Nate Maring’s cattle and allowed them to sell to high-end buyers, getting a premium price for premium beef. Dave and Peter Burfeind installed energy-saving light fixtures in their dairy, cutting their electricity bills by hundreds of dollars a month.
At every stop, the message was clear. Conservation and environmental protection on farms can be good business. Every farmer on the tour is reaping a financial benefit from their actions and continues to push the envelope for what is possible. There are thousands of farmers like Dave Legvold or Phil Maring doing great things for their land. It is time they were recognized for it.
That’s the goal of Field Stewards, to reward farmers reaching above and beyond the standard and pushing the envelope for stewardship. Right now, we’re working with a group of partners to create a market-based program that will reward commodity crop farmers for demonstrating environmental stewardship on their farms. Through the buying and selling of credits, the Field Stewards program will link farmers engaged in sustainable farm practices with food companies who want to mitigate the environmental impact of their commodity crop supply chains.
If you have questions about the tour, or want to learn more about Field Stewards, leave a comment here or drop me a note anytime.
Photo credit: Conservation Technology Information Center.