Farmers Find Value in Conservation

Quiet stream
  • Conservation and profit can go hand-in-hand
  • Efficient inputs are key to return on investment
  • New programs make conservation practices more accessible

Fifty years ago, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl “Rusty” Butz called upon American farmers to plant “from fencerow to fencerow” to maximize production. To reiterate his message, his motto was “get big or get out.”

Farmers responded to that charge and soaring grain prices in 1973. There was a pervasive sense that a good farmer would take every opportunity to make the land tillable and productive. Total acres of corn and soybeans planted continued on a steady rise for the next few decades. Production was the aim — to both feed the world and provide for the farmer.

But a farm’s yield and its profit do not necessarily correlate.

In recent years, farmers have taken a more analytical approach when considering return on investment and the long-term sustainability of the farm. Along the way, they found employing certain conservation practices both helped their bottom line and reduced soil and nutrient loss.

Lee tesdell field

“If you take the long-term view, you’re ahead because you’re preserving topsoil,” said Polk County landowner Lee Tesdell, noting that a one-year snapshot of the bottom line alone is not a complete picture of a farm’s success. “When you lose topsoil, please tell me how to get it back. I don’t know of any way to get it back.”

Emphasizing ROI over yield

While some may be skeptical that conservation practices and profitability can go hand-in-hand, Seth Watkins, a farmer in southwest Iowa, points out the ultimate question is about return on investment, not yield. He has found that many inputs to maximize yield work against a farm’s profitability.

For example, a farmer might harvest more total bushels by planting row crops on a sandy or wet part of the field, but the seed and chemical inputs to produce them in that soil may cost more than the crop’s worth.

“If we take certain land out of production, we’ll have a greater return on investment in any farm,” he said. “You can farm fewer acres and make more money because some inputs shouldn’t be there.”

He has found the practices that improve water quality — like wetlands and prairie strips — also improve his bottom line.

“I’ve seen the outcome of those practices and how quickly it can happen,” he continued. “If it’s simply a practice like prairie strips in a field, you’re immediately as a farmer going to see an improved return on investment, and you’re also going to see more birds, more bees, more pollinators.”

It boils down to a familiar adage: “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep.”

Fuel input costs go down with no-till. Seed inputs go down by turning a flood-prone area into a wetland. Chemical inputs go down with variable rate application and the right crop rotations. And soil heath improves with cover crops.

“I’m seeing the benefits of soil health in how that has really increased productivity on my farm,” said Dean Sponheim, a farmer in Mitchell County.

He used to talk to other farmers about his conservation practices for soil health and water quality, often to a muted response. But he found that message resonated a lot more when he shared his bottom line from those practices. Profitability in connection with conservation was far more effective.

Statewide programming does the heavy lifting

More than ever, cost share programs and other incentives make conservation practices more accessible and attractive to Iowa farmers.

Iowa’s Crop Insurance Discount Program has been a standout in this area. The incentive offers farmers a $5 per acre discount on spring crop insurance premiums for having planted cover crops the previous fall. Almost 1,000,000 acres of cover crops have been enrolled in the program, which has become a model replicated in other states.

The Batch and Build program is an urban and rural partnership that has drastically scaled up the installation of bioreactors and saturated buffers, while making them free and less of a hassle for farmers.

Rather than requiring a farmer to find a contractor and front the bills, the program uses a single contractor across an area to build a “batch” of bioreactors and saturated buffers at the same time — and the farmer never gets a bill.

Secretary Naig sm

“We’re working with new partners to find ways to streamline the ability to get more work done and to make it easier for farmers and landowners to say ‘yes,’” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “Really in a Batch and Build scenario, all you have to say is, ‘I’m ready. Sign me up.’ And the team takes it from there.”

Such programs have helped Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy gain momentum toward the end of its first decade. Farmers have learned which conservation practices are beneficial, and they’ve gotten financial assistance for edge-of-field practices that would have been costly as a personal investment.

Farming for the next generation

But there is also a growing sense of perspective, humility and selflessness that has driven farmers to pursue conservation practices apart from financial motivations. It comes from an appreciation of what Iowa has and a desire to preserve it.

Roger Van Ersvelde sm

“I feel that I’m a steward of the land,” said Roger Van Ersvelde, a farmer who had the first bioreactor installed in Poweshiek County in 2017. “My whole philosophy from the time I started farming is ‘I’m going to take care of the ground I’ve been able to use for my lifetime, and I want it to be better than when I started for the next generations to grow crops and feed the world.’”

To mark 10 years of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we are telling stories about Iowa farmers, the practices they employ and the programs that support them in the effort to protect the soil and improve water quality.