Skip to main content

Sustainability: It Starts at the Farm

By Jayci Cave and Blair McCowen

Every farm and every farmer face different situations and challenges each year. Different locations, operations, soil types, weather conditions and other factors influence the decisions made on the farm every day. However, all farmers share a common goal – to make a living and provide for their families and the growing population today, while working to ensure future generations will be able to do the same tomorrow.

This concept of sustainability can take on many different forms at each level of the cotton supply chain, but it all starts at the farm level. This could be specific farming practices that help conserve natural resources or it could be actions which help ensure the business will be able to continue for many years to come. Economical sustainability goes hand-in- hand with the production decisions made every day. The goal of each should be long-term profitability.

What steps do I need to take to get the land ready? What type of seed should I plant? Is no-till a viable option in my operation? Should I plant a cover crop? If so, which cover crop is best suited for my operation? Will there be enough moisture to sustain the crop? What type of fertilizer should I apply? What type of equipment will I need? These are just a few of the questions farmers may be contemplating going into a crop season. Each of these decisions could also impact the profitability of the operation both this year and down the road. What is sustainable for one farmer may not be suited for another. It is important to research and understand which options are viable for you and which may not work in your situation. How exactly can sustainable farming practices fit into
your operation?

There are many ways sustainable farming can positively affect a farming operation, from increasing organic matter in the soil to providing opportunities for monetary savings. At first glance, sustainable farming might appear as quite an undertaking. Upon further investigation, however, the return on investment concerning money, time and effort is one that presents possibilities and combinations to help make your operation more successful. The following farming practices provide a glimpse into how certain sustainable practices can benefit your operation.

No-till or Minimum-till

According to USDA, farmers practicing conventional tillage use roughly six gallons of diesel per acre per year. Those who implement no-till or minimum-till practices typically use around two gallons per acre per year. In addition, labor costs and time can be cut with fewer people, equipment, and monetary resources being required following the initial investment to switch from conventional to no-till farming. Essentially, the land begins to care for itself in a no-till operation. When acres are allowed to “rest” and are uninterrupted by plows, the soil’s health can be improved along with its capacity to hold and distribute water, leading to the potential of increased yields particularly on rain-fed fields. No or minimum-till farming methods also help control erosion as the bare soil is not left to the mercy of wind and rain.

Cover Crops

Much like the advantages of no-till or minimum-till farming, cover crops help protect the land that is left open after growing seasons and harvest have concluded. USDA attributes cover crops to be a leading contributor to increase the soil’s organic matter, which can lead to growing healthier crops if implemented consistently over time. In addition, cover crops assist the soil in water absorption, prevent runoff, and allow the soil to hold onto moisture during dryer months of the year. Where cotton is specifically concerned, farmers like Randall Bankhead have reported increased yields and a reduction in soil erosion (read his story on page 8). There are also a variety of cover crops to choose from that can add different vital nutrients back into the soil. Combining cover crops with minimum or no-till practices also can reduce the need for herbicides and insecticides.

Contour Farming

Going with the flow of the land is what contour farming does best. Taking advantage of the hills and curves already present in the field allows agriculturists to preserve the soil’s ability to naturally care for itself. USDA credits contour farming to keeping nutrient-rich topsoil in place on fields, as well as reducing runoff and increasing water infiltration. Building up terraces, ridges and field borders can help keep water from pooling or creating ponds in the field during a significant rainfall event, possibly drowning crops that are already in the ground. While contour farming does take extra time concerning preparation to build up the land appropriately, it could be a sustainable practice that could benefit a crop.

Crop Rotations

While crop rotations are not among the newest of sustainable farming practices, they are some of the most tried and true. Some crops are planted to restore nutrients to the soil while others are planted to hold down the soil during seasons when the main crop is not being grown. USDA states that rotating crops can also help break up weed, insect and disease cycles, leading to less need for herbicide and insecticide applications, subsequently reducing labor costs and saving time. Crop rotations also can help with moisture conservation, especially when implemented with no-till or minimum-till practices. USDA also states that monetary risk can be reduced with crop rotations due to the possibility of harvesting more than one type of crop, leading to additional operational income. Crop rotations also help increase the organic matter and overall health of the soil while adding diversity to an operation.

While the previously described farming practices provide a variety of options for your operation, perhaps the seemingly elusive step toward new growth is already there – simply entertaining the thought of “how can I improve my operation, even in the smallest way?” is a step toward improved sustainability starting at your farm, and farms across the nation.