Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been changing, incorporating new methods or enterprises into increasingly complex operations. Some changes are easily seen, like the change from horse-powered to tractor-powered machinery. Many are less visible. And increasingly, changes are being driven by natural resource concerns.
I am often challenged by water resource advocates who wonder, “Why won’t farmers change?” My usual response is to ask, “What would you have them do differently?” The ensuing conversation usually shows that farmers are largely leading the way, having already implemented many of the suggestions.
I also find that change is so common for farmers that it is often taken for granted. “Well, I haven’t really changed much over my farming career, except for the crops I grow, how I till the soil, how much fertilizer I apply, the corn hybrids I plant ... .” It can get to be an exceptionally long list — and that is just on the crop side. Livestock producers have made similar strides in the way they manage their animals and the valuable manure they produce.
Traditional thinking is that most changes on the farm are driven solely by economics; that change will not happen if it is not profitable. In my experience, environmental considerations are increasingly a part of the equation. Perhaps it is a greater recognition that fertile, farmable land is not infinitely available. Or maybe it is due to a greater awareness of the importance of protecting water resources for future generations.
No matter the reason, trends in farming practices are positive. Tillage intensity is decreasing. More precise manure and fertilizer management practices are being used. Integrated pest management is becoming more commonplace. Meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly, yields continue to grow.
Technology and research are critical contributors to identifying and implementing new practices. The ability to evaluate inputs and yields with great precision helps sort out practices that work from those that do not.
Through centuries of change, society still depends on the farmer for many of its basic needs, most importantly for food. It is for this reason that virtually all changes must pass through the filter of maintaining or improving overall productivity. As Norman Borlaug said, “The first essential component for social justice is adequate food for all mankind.” We are not there yet, but we are making progress.
Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.