Modern Farmers on the Frontline of Conservation

17:38 minutes

Farmers in a Rockingham County, Virginia check the results of no-till farming in their fields on September 9, 2008. Credit: Bob Nichols/USDA

In Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland, author Miriam Horn describes a burgeoning conservation movement among farmers and other agricultural producers. These growers utilize practices like no-till and dry irrigation, which conserve natural resources, as a way to cultivate crops according to the biology of the soil and land. Horn writes that “as these productive landscapes grow increasingly precarious…overgrazed, over-tilled, overfished…it is the families who run the tractors and barges and fishing boats who are stepping up to save them. Theirs are the most consequential efforts to restore America’s grasslands, wildlife, soils, rivers, wetlands and fisheries — the vast, rich bounty that shaped our national character and sustains our way of life.” (Read a book excerpt here.)

Horn joins Ira along with Doug Palen, a farmer from Kansas and founding member of the organization No-till on the Plains, who describes how he looks for complementary techniques, like crop rotation and cattle grazing.

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Segment Guests

Miriam Horn

Miriam Horn is a writer at the Environmental Defense Fund. She’s also author of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). She’s based in New York, New York.

Doug Palen

Doug Palen is a farmer and rancher. He’s a founding board member of No-till on the Plains. He’s based in Glen Elder, Kansas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When you think of an environmentalist, who comes to mind? Well, maybe someone who buys organic, a foodie who eats locally, maybe a Prius driver trying to reduce her footprint. They’re all part of a carbon-conscious class that is becoming more mainstream.

But there are folks on the front lines quietly going on about their conservation work. They may not even call themselves environmentalists. But they see conservation from the ground up, literally. It’s the basis for their livelihood. They are the modern farmers.

And one of my next guests writes, “As these productive landscapes grow increasingly precarious– overgrazed, over-tilled, over-fished– it is the families who run the tractors and the barges and the fishing boats who are stepping up to save them. And their farming methods are helping to keep tons of greenhouse gas CO2 trapped in the soil and keep the land more fertile for the future.” How are they doing it? That’s what we’re going to be talking about. Also, if you are a farmer, or someone who works in the Ag business, give us a call, 844-724-8255, or if you just want to talk about farming in general.

Let me introduce my guest. Miriam Horn is the author of the book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland. She joins us here in our CUNY studios. Good to see you. Thank you for stopping by.

MIRIAM HORN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Doug Palen is a farmer and rancher from Glen Elder, Kansas. He’s also a founding board member of the organization No-Till on the Plains. Welcome to Science Friday.

DOUG PALEN: Thank you, it’s pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Doug, Your farm has been in your family for four generations. You started this No-Till method when you took it over. What made you decide to make that switch?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah, I’m the fourth generation here where we are in Kansas. And after I graduated from college back in 1993, I returned to the family farm to take over management, and had some exposure to No-Till prior to that. And it looked like a good system to embark on, and one that would afford a young producer a lot of opportunities. And so it’s been a great journey.

IRA FLATOW: Describe for our listeners what No-Till means.

DOUG PALEN: Primarily, the first thing people think of is certainly the lack of tillage. So we can discontinue doing tillage. But it’s so much more than that, where we’re doing crop rotations, and we’re rotating crops on different fields every year, and really trying to understand the soil and the biology of the soil.

IRA FLATOW: So you don’t plow up the field? How else then do you plant your seeds?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah. So, actually, we’re able to just seed directly into the residues or the crops stubbles that remain on the surface, that are now protecting the soil from wind and water erosion and helping to conserve the water that does fall, particularly in moisture-limiting climates like the central plains where I farm.

IRA FLATOW: So when we go out to farm– I was in Georgia, in the farmland in Georgia last– couple of weeks ago. In Texas, wherever you go, you see these giant acreage just open, the soils exposed. You’re not leaving your soil exposed like that, are you?

DOUG PALEN: Right. Yeah, no. So what we’re constantly trying to do is mimic the native systems, or the natural system, where there’s always something growing. And we try and do that even with the annual crops that we can produce for the consumers, and yet leave the cover on the soil to protect the soil. So, yeah, always trying to armor the soil, we often talk about, is to protect it with the residues on the surface.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Miriam, one of the most important aspects of farming is the health of the soil. And in your book you say, “Soil is also one of our most vulnerable and endangered resources. It is effectively nonrenewable.” What do you mean by that?

MIRIAM HORN: Well, soil actually takes about 500 years to create a single inch. It’s a mix of eroded rock and organic matter. And so when you lose it, as we still are losing in the US close to 2 billion tons of topsoil every year in some parts of the country, that’s the equivalent of about a foot or more of topsoil gone. And that’s thousands and thousands and thousands of years to replenish that really most critical ecosystem we have on Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Doug, what differences have you noticed in terms of productivity, or the soil health, for your farm since you’ve gone to this No-Till?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah. Well, over the almost 25 years now, I guess, that I’ve been doing it, we always monitor the soil’s health, both chemically, with the nutrients, and monitor its organic matter. And so those numbers have continued to climb, particularly the organic matter which is such an integral function or part of the soil. And so, yeah, we just continue to see the soil’s texture continue to get better, and, again, its organic matter continue to rise. And it just continues to perform even better than it did.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we talk a lot on Science Friday about the human microbiome, the microbiome that’s in our bodies, in our gut. But there is a microbiome, Miriam, in the soil, is there not, that gets disrupted when you plow it up?

MIRIAM HORN: Absolutely. A third of earth organisms live in the soil. And they perform these critical functions. They sustain photosynthesis, which is where we get all our food and all our air. They protect plants and humans from disease.

They hold the soil together. They hold nutrients and carbon in the soil. They conduct a kind of barter economy in plants, where they bring them those nutrients. But if you scramble the soil with a plow, if you twist through it, I liken it to a tornado where you scramble these symbiotic communities. You collapse the homes that they live in.

And you allow– you overfeed them, really, with the residues. And so you allow a kind of explosion of bacteria at the expense of fungi. And the bacteria eat up all the organic matter and respire it out as carbon dioxide. So you rob the soil of this vital nutrient, and you add it to the atmosphere where it adds to climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and this soil actually is a sink for carbon dioxide, isn’t it? It holds it in.

MIRIAM HORN: It is. It’s the second biggest repository of carbon on the planet. It has twice as much as the atmosphere and every plant combined. And if you farm well, if you leave the soil undisturbed, and you keep it protected in these ways, and you care for your microbiome, you can start rebuilding that carbon back. It was pretty much stripped out by all the generations of plowing that followed on homesteading. But this group of farmers that Doug is part of have seen the carbon levels in their soil building back up toward native prairie levels.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, to Grinnell, Iowa. Hi, welcome. You’re on Science Friday.

SPEAKER 1: Hello, yes. My husband and I do livestock production. And we do a thing called mob grazing. And it’s designed to replicate what the buffalo did. And so we’re increasing our organic matter and its capacity to hold carbon, through moving our cattle every day or every other day in intensive paddocks.

So we’re trying to do that part. But it is very difficult to– we also raise crops, so that is difficult. I’d like to make a distinction between plowing and other forms of disturbance. So there is a continuum of disturbance practices, and not all are as bad as– you know, it’s a difficult and nuanced problem. That’s all I want to say.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Doug, you also sort of do that. You also have animals on your farm.

DOUG PALEN: Yeah. Yeah, I also have a cow herd. And we raise cows and calves, and integrate that very much into my cropping system. So on some of lands that are a bit more marginal, or even across all the fields, we grow, on occasion, crops that are grazed in that system.

And I’ve actually seen, interestingly enough, we’ve seen a lot of grain producers through the Midwest who’ve actually reintroduced cattle back into the crop lands. And I think that’s a key component of the natural system where we have livestock. And so we’re actually seeing a trend back to that, as this lady described there where they’re doing some mob grazing and some things. Those are kind of interesting and functional in the system.

IRA FLATOW: Do you use herbicides on your crops? Do you think you’re using less than if you would have tilled the area?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah, we still continue to use in our system some crop protection products. When we can’t– when we don’t have– I guess our first line of defense is always the natural system. So we’re always trying to see what we can do with cultural practices.

And that’s crop rotation and sanitation, and all those things. And when we can’t accomplish what we need there, sometimes we use crop protection products to kind of nudge the system along, to help it along. And as the word describes, they’re there to protect the health of the crops that we’re growing, which is the food that we’re producing.

IRA FLATOW: And I also understand that you don’t irrigate your farm.

DOUG PALEN: Yeah. I don’t have– in my area, everything is done on dry land. We don’t have irrigation or natural water surface or subsurface to do. So everything that everything I get is what Mother Nature gives me. So that’s what we work with, and we get along well.

IRA FLATOW: You get along well. That’s, I guess, that’s also– Miriam, this is working out for the farmers.

MIRIAM HORN: Yes, it’s got tremendous benefits for the farmers. You know, Kansas has been dealing with incredibly extreme weather for the last number of years, swinging from the hottest, deepest droughts in recorded history, to these unseasonal freezes and snowstorms, and then these torrential rains. And the wheat yields in general have been really volatile in line with that.

But the No-Till farmers have seen much steadier and high yields. Their soil is much better at capturing water. It stays very porous. So the water permeates very deep in the soil.

And then it’s much better at holding the water. There isn’t nearly as much evaporation or water loss. And so they’re much more resilient to these extremes of weather.

And as Doug said, they often need far fewer inputs. They have to make very few, many fewer, tractor passes, which saves a lot on time and diesel. But they also frequently add much less nitrogen, because the crop rotations are doing that work. Nature is providing the nitrogen that they need.

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet from Sarah saying, “Calling practices like No-Till ‘burgeoning conservation’ makes me pretty annoyed. Because my family has been doing those things for decades, as have other farmers around us.” Let me go to one somebody, a farmer in Lovettsville, Virginia. Chris, welcome to Science Friday.

SPEAKER 2: Hey, thanks for taking my call. So I was excited when I heard you all introduce the topic and talk about No-Till farming. Because I worked for the soil and water conservation district here, and I also have a hay operation of my own.

And I deal with a lot of, sort of, new farmers, people buying a little bit of acreage and looking to farm. And there’s so much– when they think about conservation, a lot of them are thinking, well, I want to farm organically, or I don’t want to use sprays. And one thing that I think is important to think about as well– you know, there are a lot of issues surrounding using herbicides and pesticides.

Using No-Till farming, and using conservation practices like that, is solving one of the big issues we have. We think back to the Dust Bowl, we think about soil loss. And I think people get so myopic about focusing on well, I don’t want to eat GMOs, or I don’t want to eat anything that’s been sprayed. And we really need to look at the fact that there are a lot of conservation practices that are aided by the use of some of these chemicals, and that allow us to maintain that soil health.

So it’s not perfect. But if we go back to the way we farmed in the 40s and 50s, our conservation won’t be benefited there. It might actually be reduced.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for your call. Doug, what do you say to that?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah, I think he’s right. I think we need to look at those things again. As we look at a increasing population in the world, we have people to feed.

And more so from a nutrient standpoint, I think people need to understand that out here in the fields where we grow the food, it needs fertilizer. It needs fertilizer to put on, which is fine. So we grow it, and we capture it, and we put it in trains to ship to where the people are in the cities. And that takes those nutrients with it.

You know, a 100-car train of soybeans has 400,000 pounds of phosphorus that goes to the cities. And that’s fine, but if we don’t identify a way to bring that nutrient back, whether it’s sewer sludge or whatever, I think people need to understand that we’re shipping that out. And we have to replace it with something. And so what we’re doing then is with commercial fertilizer here to replace that until we figure out a way to close that loop or close that system.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Doug Palen, farmer and rancher from Glen Elder, Kansas. He’s a board member, a founding board member of No-Till on the Plains. Miriam Horn, author of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland. And you talk about– in your book, you talk not just about farming the land. You talk about farming and shrimpers in Louisiana.


IRA FLATOW: What are they doing?

MIRIAM HORN: Well, so I found all these wonderful characters through my work, through Environmental Defense Fund. And one of the big projects we’re involved in is the effort to restore the Mississippi River Delta. The Mississippi has been re-engineered for more than a century. And the consequence of building levees all the way down that river was that it starved its own delta.

The wetlands that it had built began to dissolve into the Gulf of Mexico. And Louisiana has lost 2000 square miles of really critical land, critical for fisheries and birds, and critical for protection for people, and oil and gas infrastructure. So the shrimper that I write about, and also I have a CEO of a barge company, and they’re both involved in an effort to allow the Mississippi again to begin rebuilding its wetlands by releasing it from that straight jacket of levees.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Doug, the farm bill has programs that support conservation methods. And these are all voluntary. If you know that these techniques work, and they’re good for the environment, do you feel bad that they would make them mandatory? You would be against mandatory things?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah, I always prefer that they be voluntary. Back to No-Till on the Plains, the organization I’ve been involved with for years, we’ve always helped to educate the farmers. And the organization is very much by farmers, for farmers. And that’s always, as a farmer, that’s kind of the approach I like, that we help educate or teach.

And certainly those programs through the government have been beneficial. I’ve utilized them to help with the learning process and to implement some of those. So yeah, I prefer the voluntary. I’d rather educate the producer and let him believe and understand it, rather than try and mandate or regulate that he has to do it.

IRA FLATOW: Miriam, you think the markets here would decide?

MIRIAM HORN: Markets are playing a really critical role. We’ve got grocers ranging from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart who are now putting signals into the market, saying they want climate-smart products to put on their shelves. And that makes an enormous difference. But that does really work in sync with some federal policy.

The land grant universities, and their extension services, are completely critical and deserve to be far better funded, in terms of providing critical research and then disseminating that research. There’s also a lot of ways that things like crop insurance could be structured to really reward conservation. Now, sometimes, it actually gets in the way of some of these conservation practices.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to talk lots more in the year to come about farming and agriculture. So this is just the beginning of our conversation. I want to thank both of you for taking time to talk with us. Doug Palen, farmer and rancher from Glen Elder, Kansas, founding board member of the organization No-Till on the Plains. Where can we see that? Is there a website, No-Till on the Plains, Doug?

DOUG PALEN: Yeah, they can just simply go to NoTill, n-o-t-i-l-l, dot org, NoTill.org.

IRA FLATOW: NoTill.org. Miriam Horn, author of the book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland. And there’s a documentary based on the book on the Discovery Channel on August 17th. And you can read an excerpt on our website at sciencefriday.com/farmer. We’ll take a break. We’ll be right back to talk about the California drought. So stay with us.

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