Mark Licht | Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, Iowa State University
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in several conversations regarding the need for change. Change is hard. It doesn’t matter what the profession. Change brings about anxiety and discontent. We do not like change forced upon us. But, we do accept change when it meets our current wants and needs. Sometimes change can be incremental, and sometimes it can be abrupt.
Since humans first began domesticating plants, agriculture has experienced incremental change. Most of the change focused on agricultural intensification – increasing agricultural production per unit of input. These inputs included labor, land, time, fertilizer, seed and pesticides to name just a few. Mechanization in labor from humans, to horses and oxen, to tractors has allowed greater productivity which led to expansion of land in agricultural production.
Throughout the last 150 years, incremental change has begun to happen more rapidly. Think of how corn production moved from open pollinated, to hybrid, to transgenic cultivars. Iowa led the nation in the adoption of both hybrid and transgenic cultivars. For centuries, fertility needs have been met with animal manure. We shifted to commercial fertilizers in the mid-1900s and the necessity for livestock in individual production systems was eliminated. Over the last 25 years, precision agriculture advancements have yet again created efficiencies of labor, time and use of chemical inputs (or fertilizers and pesticides). Agricultural intensification has only been possible through change.
Just like changes throughout these 150 years brought greater production and ability to feed more people, we are at another formative point in advancing agricultural systems. Our systems need to be conservation focused. The time to adopt cover crops, conservation tillage, CREP wetlands, saturated buffers, bioreactors, and diverse rotations is now.
What makes this change especially difficult, is the time-frame to change and the pressures weighing on farmers from many directions. Consumers are demanding sustainable practices. Our neighbors in Iowa and beyond are demanding cleaner water and healthier soil. We need to change more abruptly than we would like to sustainably supply the needs of the world’s population now and for many generations.
As I talk to farmers about why they do not make incremental changes towards the adoption of conservation practices, I frequently hear “this is the way we have always done it,” or “I am nearing the end of my career, I will let the next generation make the change.”
These are excuses. We have to be able to see past our own lifetimes. As we look back on the lives of our parents and grandparents, we can see this isn’t the way we have always done it. More importantly, we can’t wait for the next generation to be in charge to change. What about two or three generations to come? Can we think in a longer scope? What will they say when they look back to this time?
Iowa has phenomenal farmers who have been champions for conservation. I am quite confident these farmers see change as an opportunity. Many of these champions have or will be transitioning the farming operation to the next generation. They have made incremental changes to adopt and perfect conservation practices over the course of many years. Often, they are still looking for ways to improve.
Crop production systems need to be changed to provide soil health and nutrient reduction benefits. We need to work together to find the right practices for each farm and each field. Iowa agriculture is in a unique position to lessen the impact of agricultural intensification.
Change is inevitable. To continue with our current systems, is not an option. Let’s continue to innovate together – as Iowa farmers always have. Let’s commit to making the sustainable changes needed while those changes are voluntary and can be made on an individualized basis.