Many of today’s farmers still possess a bit of that rugged individualism that has been lost to the whims of our modern economy. Farming represents a combination of ideas that are not uniquely American but American nonetheless — a fierce respect for independence and an attraction to the frontier and whatever surprises it may bring.
Many independent farmers value their sovereignty as much as life itself. They have, at times, found themselves at odds with local agencies in an attempt to maintain these values.
No-till farming — a growing approach —has quite a few advocates for its efficacy. The numbers aren’t bad, either. A study by the Soil Health Institute analyzed 100 farms that used a mix of no-till or regenerative techniques on their crops, finding that two-thirds (67%) of farms produced higher crop yields, reduced costs, and increased profit margins.
Regenerative farming methods are also good for the environment and can prevent soil erosion, a practice that helps to mitigate the pollutant effects of irrigation water runoff. Still, getting small-scale farmers to buy in has been a slow process.
“We’ve done the door-knocking to start talking to the farmers, talk to the landowners about these projects,” says Craig Mell, district administrator for Minnesota’s Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District. “In a lot of cases, it takes a neighbor to do something first.”
In truth, farmers have proven time and time again that they are most receptive to one demographic: other local farmers. Representatives from corporate farming operations don’t often have sway. Small-scale landowners need to hear the message from others who realize this is no small decision. “Farmers have to have skin in the game and understand that if they do not make these changes, they will be out of business,” says Ecosystem Services Market Consortium’s Debbie Reed.
The Consortium executive director’s thoughts are backed up in academia. A 2018 article published in the journal “Sustainability” reviewed studies on adopting clean water practices in the agricultural sector. The review found that peer-to-peer interaction was among the most important aspects influencing farmers’ sustainability decisions. It also discussed the prospect of conservation agencies forming a dialogue with farmers, recommending the usage of area farmers who supported the mission in as much of the messaging as possible.
The “Sustainability” review also points to the efficacy of financial incentives as a government’s approach to pursuing the adoption of sustainable techniques sector-wide.
Farming is an occupation of very thin margins, and the prospect of the state incentivizing those margins can often be enough to convince many that shaking things up is worth the risk. Funding is often tied to contracts that guarantee commitment, hoping farmers will eventually just let the benefits speak for themselves.
Max Gustafson, a farmer who owns 300 acres in Chisago County, MN, has been a happy recipient of federal incentives to support regenerative practices. Federal per-acres grants for no-till soil and anti-erosion planting that amounted to thousands of dollars got Gustafson on board, though he now says going back to the old way is extremely unlikely.
Since making the change, the farmer has saved even more on tractor fuel and soil costs, and his efforts have contributed to removing two local lakes from the state’s list of impaired waters. “The work that we’re doing is getting good conservation on the ground, which is making a big difference on water quality,” said Mell.