Caring for the Land, Protecting Oceans
The first thing leaders across the farming industry always tell farmers is that we’re feeding the world. We’re feeding 7 billion people.
As a farmer from Iowa, this industry messaging has made me feel important. I always told myself: I have a responsibility to ensure people around the world do not go hungry. Until 20 years ago, this conventional wisdom is what encouraged me to run Pinhook Farm in a very conventional, production-focused manner. I calved my cows in February and March, used lots of tillage in preparing my soil for my crops and relied heavily on fossil fuels, chemicals and antibiotics.
But 1998 changed all that. During a massive March blizzard, I had the profound revelation that calves were not supposed to be born in cold, treacherous weather. We had about 22 inches of heavy snow, temperatures dropped to below zero, and I was forced to fill up the barn with cows and calves hoping to keep them alive. My cows were incredibly stressed, and this kind of immune system breakdown is what hurts these animals’ livelihoods and the calving process. I grew tired of wasting money on extra labor costs and working endlessly to protect my cows from these unfavorable living conditions.
In the aftermath of that pivotal year, I asked myself a simple question: Why am I working against Mother Nature?
Up until that point, I had just been focused on how. How do I raise cows? How do I remove weeds? But I wasn’t asking why?
I realized the way I farmed was based on an old-school way of thinking. The insights and advice I kept hearing from other farmers dated back to well before I was born. While we’ve had a Farm Bill – known as the Agriculture Adjustment Act – dating back to 1933, our current farm policy has been based on a concept of “get big or get out” which took root in the early 1970s. Since then, there has been a push to use cheap oil, abundant land, chemicals and modern equipment to make U.S. agriculture the most productive in the world. But many of the threats to our lakes and oceans today are a direct result of modern farming practices and the current Farm Bill policy, which maximize production with little regard to long-term environmental impacts.
For example, I began to realize that waste from farming was making its way into our water system – traveling down the Mississippi River all the way into the Gulf of Mexico. I realized just how many other farms like mine were also dumping the same waste into our major rivers. It’s no surprise then that our lakes, rivers and oceans are plagued with an overabundance of carbon and nitrogen, pollutants that cause environmental problems like ocean acidification, which harms marine wildlife and the people who rely on the ocean's resources for food and recreation.
It also surprised me how much our current Farm Bill works against farmers by subsidizing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Yes, it’s true that agriculture has to be an oversupply business to ensure that we can feed the world, but our policy needs to incentivize the regeneration and protection of our natural resources, not their destruction.
The more I started to answer the why questions, the more I realized I needed to trust my instincts and build a farm system that made clean water, healthy soil and happy cows. This meant adopting sustainable farming methods focused on stewardship in partnership with production – which actually improved my bottom line.
One of the practices that has had the greatest impact on my system so far is moving my calving start date from February to April. Ever since, I have had fewer calving and health problems with my cows, lower veterinary costs, greater herd performance, and fewer dollars spent on feed, fuel and labor. On the technology side, I’ve implemented precision and Ag Solver technology, which allows me to identify the most appropriate locations to farm on my land and where to apply nutrients. I’ve also implemented conservation practices like no-till, cover crops, three species crop rotation and prairie STRIPs (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) into my cropping system, all of which give us the greatest opportunity to address the carbon and nitrogen issues in our lakes, rivers and oceans.
Turns out, Mother Nature knows best.
What happens on farmlands across the Mississippi River’s watershed has a huge impact on the health of other bodies of water. So in building this new system on my farm, I’ve realized that I’m not just feeding people – I’m ensuring that my actions don’t have a negative impact on the families, communities and the environments that depend on the health of our rivers and oceans.
These practices have increased the resilience of my farm by improving the soil and its ability to sequester carbon and infiltrate water, which in turn has allowed me to plant and harvest in a more timely manner. I have also been able to improve my return on investment by identifying poor-producing acres, which can then be taken out of row-crop production and enhanced for wildlife to generate revenue from outfitting. Not only do I sleep better at night, but I also see improved results on the balance sheet. By using ecological solutions, production has increased by about 10%, my costs have decreased by $200 per cow and my profits have gone up by $300 per cow.
All of these methods have proven to be beneficial, but I’m just one story. As a country, we still have a lot of damage to undo and challenges to address.
As our population continues to increase and our resources decline, the demands placed on farmers and policymakers become more challenging. That is why it is so important to build a sustainable farming system that incentivizes farmers to get on board. We have the tools, technology, science, skills and people to do this right, but it will take all of us – public servants, farmers, fishermen, advocates, scientists and researchers – to confidently ask why and begin working together toward that common goal.
Seth Watkins runs Pinhook Farm, a mixed cattle and corn, oats and alfalfa operation in Clarinda, Iowa.