Let’s get honest—how often do we think about the impact we’re having on the earth or how we can improve the environment? My guess… maybe we have a fleeting thought on Earth Day or those times when we feel really good about ourselves for enjoying our Starbucks “Pink Drink” with reusable straws. But for farmers, thinking about the environment isn’t a one-day movement; it’s an everyday part of the gig.
That’s how farms in the United States have nearly tripled production over the last 70 years while the amount of resources they use remains stable, and U.S. livestock farmers have also increased production while decreasing per-unit emissions.
For example, according to numbers sourced by the Environmental Protection Agency, pork production has increased by 80 percent within the last 30 years while per-unit emissions have declined by nearly 20 percent. Beef production has increased by 18 percent with per-unit emissions falling more than 8 percent in that same timeframe. And dairy, a staple in most households, has increased production by 48 percent with 26 percent less per-unit emissions.
These numbers are made possible by crop and livestock farmers actively seeking ways to tackle environmental challenges, and often the solutions they use are multi-beneficial, addressing both air and water quality.
Farmers like Ethan Crow of Marshall County use a variety of conservation practices such as no-till—leaving the soil undisturbed after harvest—and cover crops, which blanket his fields during winter months to curb soil loss and hold valuable nutrients in place. These practices benefit not just the success of his production, but also help to protect water sources and emit less greenhouse gases by trapping carbon in the soil.
And farmers like Webster County’s Kellie Blair see cattle as an integral part of her family farm’s sustainability story. The Blairs, like Ethan, grow cover crops which they feed to their animals whose manure then fertilize their crops. (Move over Lion King— this is what the circle of life looks like). Kellie says cattle can eat certain plant parts or items not up to human food-grade standard, further reducing waste.
Past Conservation Farmer of the Year Award winner, Jarad Weber of Lee County, also understands the value of pairing livestock with sustainability. Using rotational grazing, he moves his cattle around his land to keep forage on the ground at all times, helping promote carbon sequestration. He also installed a bioreactor on his farm, a practice that filters nutrients out of drain tile through an underground pit of woodchips.
These are but three examples of the 86,000 farms in Iowa employing strategies to work toward cleaner water and air.
Given that each farm is unique, from their topographical landscape to what they choose to raise, farmers seek out innovation, technology and research throughout the year and perform trial and error across several years to see what works on their individual farms. And we’re seeing results with less emissions, less soil loss to Iowa’s waterways and more conservation practices being put on the land.
While I commend those who choose to plant trees or do roadside clean up in honor of Earth Day, for farmers protecting the planet isn’t a one day task—it’s day after day. They’re in it for the long haul, and I’m excited to see by next Earth Day what they have achieved.