Indiana farmers face many challenges as we move deeper into the 21st century. Two seem to never go away, even though they’ve been addressed before: producing enough food to feed a growing population, and addressing environmental issues related to water quality.
Since these aren’t new issues, you may be tired of hearing about them. And yes, progress is being made. They also may not seem as essential as meeting the challenge of raising enough crops at a high enough price to make a profit and farm another year.
Some argue, and we are among them, that if you take these challenges personally and do what you can to address them, you may wind up making your farm more profitable. Arguably, addressing these two larger challenges could require changes in management or equipment that mean more short-term investment. That’s where it may become necessary to make tough choices. It’s where the rubber meets the road.
Here is a closer look.
Produce more food
While technology has improved corn yields drastically over the last few decades, will yields continue to rise, or will they plateau? Don Donovan, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Parke County, Ind., notes that more food must also be produced on decreasing acres as cropland is converted to other uses. That’s already affected some of you personally.
Donovan believes part of the answer lies beneath the soil’s surface. He believes maximizing soil health will make land more productive, resilient and efficient while reducing soil erosion and improving water quality at the same time. That would work toward solving both challenges, plus increasing gross income by having more bushels to sell.
Donovan works with farmers who are implementing systems to truly improve soil health. Some of you already may be in various stages of making this happen. Donovan believes part of the answer is to improve microbial and crop diversity. He suggests you stop tilling, keep a growing root in the soil as much of the year as possible, and keep the soil surface covered all the time.
Improve water quality
These concepts, along with a solid nutrient management plan, will go a long way toward reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients reaching Indiana waterways, Donovan says. They will also go a long way in building a healthy soil capable of being resilient during changes in weather and producing a stable yield of crops that can be grown with fewer inputs, he believes. That would result in more long-term profit.
If you’re already headed along this path, you know that Donovan’s recommendations may require testing your management skills. Some of you would have to change your paradigm of farming.
Can you get started this spring — if you haven’t already — even if budgets are tight? Some soil and water conservation districts have cost-share programs available that can help equip planters to try no-till. These same districts may also have cost-share funds for trying cover crops later this year.
The challenges of producing more food on less land while improving water quality — and doing it all while you make a profit — aren’t going away. For assistance in developing a soil health system, talk to local soil conservation folks. This might be your year to personally address these challenges.
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