How Climate-Smart Farming Practices Help the Planet
Some people say farmers represent the first conservationists. Derek Martin couldn’t agree more.
Leading the seventh generation of their farming family, Martin and his brother, Doug, grow nearly 8,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Mount Pulaski.
“You know, they don’t make farmland anymore,” Martin says. “Between my brother and me, we have six kids, and our No. 1 goal is to make sure this farm is sustainable for the next generation like our dad and mom made it available and sustainable for my brother and me.”
Addressing Climate Change
Martin and other farmers throughout Illinois have implemented agricultural practices such as no-till, planting cover crops, variable-rate fertilizer applications and more. These represent examples of climate-smart farming, which refers to the ways farms can address the impacts of climate change on our food, fuel and fiber productions systems, according to the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action (USFRA).
In a recent report, the USFRA spotlighted the key role agriculture plays in helping to reach United Nations’ sustainability goals for our planet.
“Farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using on-farm practices that increase carbon storage and improve soil,” USFRA CEO Erin Fitzgerald says.
Explaining No-Till and Cover Crops
Martin’s father, Jeff, pioneered no-till farming in their area during the early 1980s. Up until then, Jeff and many other farmers engaged in heavily turning the soil, which disrupts its structure and accelerates surface runoff and erosion over time.
In no-till practices, farmers directly plant seed without disturbing the soil, which improves soil health. In fact, Martin notes that the crop yields with their current no-till practices are the same or better than with frequent tillage.
David Wessel, a farmer in Chandlerville who raises corn, soybeans, wheat, cattle and hay on more than 2,000 acres, switched to the no-till approach more than 30 years ago.
“My family began no-till farming in the 1980s after watching nutrients and topsoil erode from under our feet on a rented 200-acre piece of land,” Wessel writes in an Illinois Soybean Association blog post. That piece of land opened his eyes to the immense benefits of conservation practices, he says.
On the Martin and Wessel farms, cover crops such as cereal rye, radishes and clover are planted in the fall – after they harvest corn and soybeans – and left to grow until the following spring. These cover crops help protect the soil from wind and water erosion, soak up excess nutrients and add valuable organic matter back into the soil.
Plants need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus for growth, which is why farmers add nutrients to fertilize the soil. Crops do not absorb all nutrients, which means heavy rain can cause runoff into rivers and lakes.
“Cover crops help prevent that from happening by trapping nitrogen before it leaves the field,” Wessel explains in an Illinois Farm Families blog post. “And because my cover crops are taking up more nitrogen, my need for additional fertilizer is reduced.”
Fewer passes over the field also mean reduced carbon dioxide emissions created by equipment.
Guided by Science
Nutrient and other important data are available to today’s farmers, thanks to technology and advanced analytics. Derek Martin tests soil at least every three years, with spot samples to monitor nutrients throughout the growing season.
“We’ve got a microscope on our farm so we can identify if we have good or bad bacteria and fungi,” Martin says. He then works with an agronomist to determine the most environmentally sound approach to adjusting the nutrients and other inputs on his crops and in his soil based on the data.
These on-farm practices illustrate farmers’ current contributions to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint. In 2020, 21 groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), representing millions of U.S. farmers and ranchers launched Farmers for a Sustainable Future, a coalition committed to both environmental and economic sustainability. The coalition serves as a resource for lawmakers and policymakers as they consider climate policies. AFBF also co-chairs the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which has developed more than 40 recommendations to guide the development of science-based federal climate policy. That alliance counts a number of groups representing farmers, forest owners, the food sector, state governments and environmental advocates, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, among its participants.
Martin recognizes what he’s doing is good for the planet, but admits his main motivation hits a little closer to home – keeping the farmland in good shape so the future generations of his family can continue farming.
“Our goal is to make our soils as healthy as they were the day central Illinois was covered in prairie,” Martin says. “My brother, Doug, and I are trying to mimic nature. If we can get our soil back to the days when it was prairie, you are talking sustainable agriculture for many generations going forward.”
See more: Get the Dirt on Soil Conservation