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Farmers promote sustainability during Earth Day

No-till is just one of the practices farmers are using to be more sustainable. Michelle Rook / Special to Forum News Service1 / 2
NCGA’s Nick Goeser talks about their Soil Health Partnership. Michelle Rook / Special to Forum News Service2 / 2

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In agriculture, every day is Earth Day. The official observation of Earth Day is Saturday, April 22, which gives farmers a chance to highlight what they're doing on the farm to be more environmental and sustainable. Farmers are truly protecting valuable natural resources by caring for the water, land and air.

In fact, commodity organizations like the United Soybean Board have made sustainability one of their core initiatives, and soybean farmers nationwide are protecting the earth through conservation and sustainable farming practices. Lewis Bainbridge, USB vice chair and an Ethan, S.D., farmer, says they have been promoting sustainability on their farm for many years.

"One of the things we truly embrace is no-till," he says. "That, incorporated with crop rotations and cover crops and variable rate technology."

Bainbridge says by using these conservation methods on his farm, he is protecting the water, soil and promoting environmental stewardship.

"You minimize the soil erosion and all those bad things that go with it, like water erosion, wind erosion and so forth," he says.

Those practices also promote water quality and soil health.

"Our soil organic matter has improved, along with soil water infiltration," Bainbridge says.

As more U.S. soybean customers demand sustainably produced products, that lead the industry to also develop the U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol, or SSAP. This provides the verification of sustainability for international and domestic customers.

The protocol is based on existing aggregated data collected from farmers nationwide who participate in national conservation programs through the farm bill. The hope is that the certification will increase the demand for U.S. soy and improve profit opportunities for U.S. soybean farmers.

The National Corn Growers Association also has developed a sustainability program. Nick Goeser, director of soil health and sustainability for the NCGA, says through their Soil Health Partnership they're collecting data to determine the economics of sustainable practices.

The three-year project includes 65 test sites across eight Midwestern states, where they will test and measure the farm management practices that improve soil health.

Goeser says that through the program, farmers are seeking innovative farming practices to change the way they care for the land.

"We're seeing some benefit to utilizing cover crops, then also looking towards strip-till and no-till," he says. "We're also looking at nutrient management, and there are many opportunities for improvement, along with the tillage and the cover crops."

"The goal is to understand the site specificity, where cover crops are paying, where we might need to tweak and use other soil health improving practices like tillage or nutrient management, and how that can work most effectively for the farmer on their own individual farms," Goeser says.

There has been growing societal pressure for agriculture and food production to be more sustainable and at the same time, protect wildlife habitat and water quality. Goeser says while farmers want to be sustainable, they also want to continue to increase crop yields and overall farm profitability.

"One component of sustainability is agricultural productivity, and we have seen that improve over time," Goeser says. "There's always that opportunity for continuous improvement to push ourselves to really get outside of our comfort zone and be proactive to take the next step and learn how to improve our operations."

Bainbridge agrees that sustainability is not a one-way street.

"If you aren't making money you aren't going to be sustainable either," he says. But beyond profit, preserving the land for future generations is the biggest end game of sustainability for Bainbridge and fellow farmers.