Feature Story •  8/21/2022

Seeking solutions on the farm: 3 big ways farmers are leaders in environmental answers

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When humans first began farming, nearly everyone had to work the land to grow enough food to survive. But, over time, a select group of people took over that responsibility for the majority of us. Farmers hold an especially valuable position in our society. Society depends on them to grow the food we need and to care for the land so it can remain productive.

For farmers, the land is their life and their livelihood. That special connection positions farmers to be leaders in helping solve environmental challenges. It’s a role farmers have always taken on, and their contributions have been particularly important in three main areas: 

1. Supporting healthy soils

Farmers began tilling the land about 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Tilling softened the soil and changed its physical properties. It gave seeds room to germinate, helped control weeds and produced better yields.1 But tillage also left soil open to erosion. Tilled soil has the potential to lose more of its carbon and nutrients. Over time, it can become unproductive. Around the 1700s, American farmers began to better understand the effects of tillage and make adjustments. They experimented with cover crops (to protect the soil during winter) and crop rotation (planting different crops from season to season). They even began to develop new tillage tools that minimally disturbed the soil.2

With the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the United States came new awareness about soil conservation. Farmers and the agriculture industry responded with innovations, like seed drills that could plant directly into untilled soil. Farmers began to adopt reduced tillage methods that were not only good for the land, but great for productivity. They realized reduced or no-till systems were less labor-intensive, preserved moisture in the soil and helped the soil hold onto vital nutrients for their crops.2

No-till is just one technique farmers use today to help keep the soil healthy. Cover crops prevent erosion while improving soil nutrients, physical characteristics and beneficial microbes.3 Crop rotation enhances soil nutrient cycling, can help keep pests and diseases at bay and improves soil organic carbon levels.4 Healthier soils can often require fewer inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides. That’s good for the land and for the business of farming. Farmers can also choose from advanced pesticide products that have less impact on soil health. For example, selective pesticides target specific damaging pests while preserving organisms that benefit the soil, like earthworms and beneficial nematodes. 

2. Promoting biodiversity

Biodiversity is another principle of farming that dates back thousands of years. For example, early farmers discovered that certain beneficial pests preyed on damaging ones. So, they’d look for ways to attract useful insects to their fields.

As our population grew and food needs increased, more land was put into production and some areas became less biodiverse. It didn’t take farmers long to realize what was at stake and begin to solve the problem. In deforested areas, farmers figured out that crops thrived when new trees and native plants were allowed to flourish.5 Cover crops proved helpful with biodiversity, too. Alongside orchards, for example, they create homes for beneficial insects and contribute to a positive nutrient cycle for the trees.6

Farmers actively protect biodiversity at the edges of their fields, in the soil underneath their crops and in the natural environment surrounding their farms. With the benefits of biodiversity, farmers can reduce the amount of labor and inputs needed to keep the farm healthy.

3. Responding to climate change

From the time planting began, farmers have had their eyes on the weather. Agriculture depends on climate. For this reason, farmers can be found on the front lines of reducing emissions, capturing carbon and making agriculture more resilient to climate change, to help create a more food-secure future.

Farmers in many areas of the globe are important adopters of clean and renewable energy.7 Farmers also help produce renewable energy sources by growing crops that can be used as biofuels. Technology that improves on-farm efficiency is also a big contributor to reducing emissions. For example, next-generation crop protection products don’t have to be applied as often, meaning fewer trips through the field with tractors and sprayers, which saves fuel and resources. Intercropping, where more than one crop is grown at a time, can also reduce emissions while boosting farm productivity. Intercropping cereals with legumes, for example, helps deliver nitrogen to plants, which is vital for growth.4 Alongside cultivation techniques like these, farmers are combining biological solutions with nitrogen-stabilizing products. For example, Utrisha N nutrient efficiency optimizer is a biological product from Corteva Agriscience that helps plants maximize their fertilizer uptake by capturing nitrogen right from the air. It can be used with nitrogen-stabilizing products that help keep fertilizer from moving into the water or back into the air.

Since they’re in the business of growing plants, farmers are natural allies in carbon sequestration, helping to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Techniques farmers have used for centuries because they’re good for the farm—like planting cover crops and reducing tillage—also help capture carbon.

Efforts like carbon sequestration and improving practices that conserve water, soil and other resources also help make farms more adaptable to the effects of climate change we’re already seeing. These practices are combined with new technologies, including advanced digital monitoring for soil and weather conditions, and the ability to choose crop varieties with helpful characteristics, such as drought tolerance, to enable farmers to manage their fields under a variety of conditions. Access to the range of technologies and practices available today—as well as those in development—helps ensure farms remain productive in a shifting climate.

Farmers have always understood that caring for the land is critical to their livelihoods and putting food on the world’s tables. This makes farmers natural leaders in solving environmental problems through practices that help maintain healthy soils, promote biodiversity and respond to climate change. From traditional management techniques that have always been good for the land to using the latest technologies, farmers continue to be forerunners in protecting the land we all depend on so it remains productive and resilient.

Utrisha N nitrogen efficiency optimizer is not registered for sale or use in all states or countries. Contact your local regulatory agency to determine if a product is registered for sale or use in your area. Always read and follow label directions.

1 Farooq, Muhammad, and Kadambot H. Siddique. “Conservation Agriculture: Concepts, Brief History, and Impacts on Agricultural Systems.” Conservation Agriculture, 2014, 3–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-11620-4_1.

2 Bergtold, Jason, and Marty Sailus, eds. Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast Production, Profitability and Stewardship. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Accessed May 25, 2022. https://www.sare.org/resources/conservation-tillage-systems-in-the-southeast/.

3 Duyck, Garrett, and Diane Petit. “Soil Health Practices and No-till Farming Transform Landscapes.” Natural Resources Conservation Council. USDA. Accessed May 25, 2022. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/newsroom/features/?cid=nrcseprd1307111.

4 Singh, Rinku, and G. S. Singh. “Traditional Agriculture: A Climate-Smart Approach for Sustainable Food Production.” Energy, Ecology and Environment 2, no. 5 (2017): 296–316. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40974-017-0074-7.

5 Rodgers Johns, Tarn. “Agriculture Is a Gateway into Solving the Bigger Problems of Our Time.” What is Emerging? Accessed May 25, 2022. https://www.whatisemerging.com/profiles/agriculture-is-a-gateway-into-solving-the-bigger-problems-of-our-time-37954a83-3623-4d2f-89fc-b454c8a0316a.

6 Brodt, Sonja, Johan Six, Gail Feenstra, Chuck Ingels, and David Campbell. “Sustainable Agriculture.” Nature Education Knowledge 3, no. 10 (2011). https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/sustainable-agriculture-23562787/.

7 “Farmers for a Sustainable Future.” American Farm Bureau Federation. Accessed May 27, 2022. https://www.fb.org/land/fsf.