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How one organization is trying to preserve Iowa’s farmland

Sustainable Iowa Land Trust's mission statement is to revert back to family farming rather than use row crops. Photo courtesy of Erik Pedersen

Farming is ever-evolving, and Iowa farming communities are becoming more cognizant of the many environmental and technological factors. 

Current trends in Iowa farming include a shift to larger corporate farms, piqued interest in soil health and advancing technologies. 

Iowa is seeing fewer small farms and more large corporate farms across the state; about 70% of Iowa farmland is operated by 18,400 commercial farms. According to Thomas Rosburg, professor of biology at Drake, the shift to large farming is contributing to issues of sustainability in agriculture. 

“Pretty much all [biodiversity] problems are due to agriculture…,” Rosburg said. “In a state where 3 million acres of row crop farmland exist…lots of it is farmed in a very conventional way with lots of chemicals and lots of synthetic nitrogen. We see lots and lots of problems.” 

One organization that is working to combat that is Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). Their mission is to preserve farmland, “ensuring that future generations of farmers have access to Iowa land to produce healthy food.” 

“Part of what SILT’s mission is to bring back that small family farm,” said Daryl Parker, a land scout for SILT. “There’s always a lot of talk and a lot of noise out there about saving the family farm. But quite honestly, the family farm went by the wayside 30 or 40 years ago.”

Along with smaller family farms, sustainable farming has taken a backseat. According to Rosburg, in the 50’s and 60’s farming was more sustainable simply because there was less technology and less use of chemical fertilizers. But even starting in the 80’s, when Rosburg farmed, the idea of a self-sufficient and completely sustainable farming system was “out there.” 

Emma Ketelsen, a junior at Drake, grew up on a farm in Iowa and is seeing the same thing. Her grandfather grew up farming, and since then, her dad has taken over and has started to do things differently. When they have conversations about what’s happening on the farm, more modernized practices and technology is a place of concern for her grandfather. 

Because SILT’s mission is to revert back to food production, the intent behind bringing back family farming is to grow a diversity of crops. Parker said that approximately 60% of Iowa’s corn goes to ethanol production to “feed our cars” rather than human food production. SILT aims to restore the value of small and diverse farming. 

Rosburg said that the key to sustainable agriculture is ensuring farms function as ecosystems are found in nature. 

“The prairie is the best model for how agriculture can be done in a sustainable way…” Rosburg said. “It was feeding lots of organisms, maintaining productivity, and at the same time it was making the soil even better…and we’re not doing that.”

According to Rosburg, a big part of creating ethical and sustainable farms is maintaining the health of the land’s soil. Another organization, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), has a related mission to build healthy and resilient communities through farming. 

“Everyone’s concerned about what they eat…we have to hold our farmers accountable,” said Brad Woodson, PFI’s habitat viability manager.

Woodson notes that PFI has an increasing interest in soil health and resilience. More farmers are becoming aware of an issue in this area and how it can be helped.

Two of the main things that help soil health are utilizing no-till practices and cover crops. No-till farming involves growing crops without disturbing soil through tilling. It leaves more organic matter in the soil and increases the soil’s water storage capacity. Tilling practices typically bring short-term benefits such as reducing weeds and aerating the soil. However, it may bring long-term consequences, which is why no-till is being implemented more. 

Cover crops are grown primarily to promote the health of future crops on the same land. There are a few reasons farmers may choose not to use cover crops. According to a NASA study, farms that utilize them for more than three years see smaller yields overall. However, they provide benefits including keeping nutrients available in the top levels of soil. 

With the implementation of these practices, we see that Iowa farmers are taking more of an interest in sustainability efforts.

Additionally, there is a big push in agriculture to reduce farms’ carbon footprint. Erik Pedersen, a farmer located in Underwood, Iowa, said that Iowa’s agriculture community is considering the implementation of a program in which ethanol plants will pay farmers a premium for growing corn more sustainably. This would be measured using carbon intensity scores, which are impacted by things such as tillage practices, manure use, cover crops and the efficient use of fuel. 

The idea is not developed enough to know what those premiums will look like yet. 

“[The incentive] has to be enough that makes it worth it to implement these practices. Because in the end, it’s a business, and in business, you have to make money [or] otherwise you fail,” Pedersen said. 

He also explains that advancing technology means farms can produce more with less. Equipment technology is becoming bigger, better and faster. Yield mapping technologies, drones and autonomous tractors are just the beginning of these advancements. 

Ketelsen has seen first-hand the impacts that advancing mapping and machine technology have made on her family farm. But, she also said that corporate farms can get ahold of this technology sooner because they have the money for it. This means that corporate farming will only become easier and more profitable. 

Woodson said accountability is key with these farmers. 

“[We’ll] be able to do everything we can to give them success. But we also have to do it in the most environmentally responsible way,” said Woodson.

Ketelsen said that she will eventually have to take over her family’s farm with her brother. Though she may not be working on the farm herself, it is important to her that those who do will take care of the land in a sustainable way. 

Rosburg teaches the book “Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future” in his class through the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at Drake. Co-written by many authors, the book maintains a focus on restoring environmentally sound practices in modern agriculture. Rosburg also tries to inform students on these topics by connecting them to ecology in his regular classes and having discussions on campus surrounding the issues. You have to understand ecology to be a good farmer, Rosburg said. 

The field of agriculture is constantly changing, but Iowa farmers continue to try and work sustainably and for the good of the community. 

Conventional farming – using things like chemical fertilizers and growing for profit – has become the new normal and there needs to be a shift to a more sustainable approach. 

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