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Common ground is right beneath our feet

What’s Your Story? Farmers have good sustainability stories to tell — and the public and policymakers desperately want to hear them.

December 2, 2022

3 Min Read
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By the time November came to a close, many western Illinois farmers had finished harvesting corn. But not David Wessel at J. and D. Wessel farms near Chandlerville. He and his dad, Jerry, who’s now 82 years old, were still hard at work in their fields that border the Sangamon River.

And that’s exactly how they’d planned it.

“We harvest later along the river because we apply fertilizer in the spring instead of the fall, and then plant corn in June,” David says. “That way, our nutrients stay in the soil instead of running off into the river. We’ve found it makes a big difference in nearby water quality.”

Now there’s a good sustainability story.

Stories like this are the kind that non-farmers — including decision-makers — want and need to hear. Late planting and other eco-management techniques such as no-till and cover crops may sound ho-hum to producers. But to those outside of production circles trying to understand what sustainability means on the farm, examples like this are gold.

Such stories are also timely. As harvest was wrapping up, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Kansas, telling those gathered at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters annual conference that American productivity is in the spotlight like never before. Countries abroad struggling with climate change and limited domestic production are looking to U.S. farmers to be leaders in feeding the world, he said.

Climate and agriculture

Vilsack was speaking from firsthand experience. He’d just returned from the 27th Conference of Parties in Egypt, where, for the first time, the conference dedicated an entire day of its agenda to discussing climate change and agriculture. At COP, that’s unusual.

And Vilsack said he expects even more focus on U.S. farming next year at COP28, in Abu Dhabi. A unique environmental initiative launched last year with the United Arab Emirates, called the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, is promoting increased investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation. Vilsack says it’s already generated $4 billion.

The big question, though, is whether innovation works in the field. Sustainability pioneers like the Wessels have proven it can. They’ve committed to a variety of eco-friendly production management techniques like no-till, cover crops and buffer strips. Some of their motivation is economical: For them, no-till means fewer hours in the field. And that’s vital for a 2,500-acre operation like theirs, on which they’re the sole employees.

But to the Wessels, environmental sustainability is part of their culture.

“I know we’re doing all we can so the water leaving our property is as clean as we can make it,” says David, who also serves as a member-at-large on the Illinois Soybean Association. “To us, that’s important.”

Similar stories are repeated across Illinois and can likewise be held out locally, nationally and globally as examples of innovation and sustainability. For example, Meenen Farms in Melvin, Ill., about an hour north of Champaign, has used no-till for the past 10 or so years on about half of its acreage. The Meenens plant winter wheat to support carbon sequestration and maintain hedgerows to reduce runoff and conserve — at the same time they’re grappling with colder, wetter springs and hotter, drier summers.

Says Spencer Meenen, “Despite challenges, I believe today’s farmers are doing all they can to go green and protect the Earth.”

These are superb sustainability stories that people near and far need to hear. Common ground with the public and others, like decision-makers, can be elusive. But in this case, it’s right beneath our feet.

Roberts teaches agricultural communications and journalism at the University of Illinois. Email questions to him at [email protected].

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