There are two kinds of farming that go on in rural Iowa, but very few people, urban or rural, are well-informed. Most residents of rural Iowa are no longer farmers. We work at desk jobs in cities and towns, we are teachers, accountants, graphic designers, professors, business people, bankers, and retail workers. While most of us, whether we live in town, in a city, or in rural Iowa, are only 2 generations off the farm (our grandparents were farmers). That does not mean that we really have much idea of the modern industrialized agriculture that our neighbors are engaged in (you might say caught up in, whether they like it or not). These folks raise grain (corn and soybeans) and sometimes confinement hogs. Dairy farms are nearly completely gone from central Iowa and beef cattle farmers are more common but still rare. A second growing, but small industry, is direct marketing agriculture. These are the farmer’s market folks or the folks that supply your CSA vegetable basket each week. They might market to you through the Des Moines Farmers Market, the Iowa Food Cooperative, or a CSA in the area. Many of these folks have to work other jobs to make a sufficient living, but there are a few that are large scale enough to make a go of it. The upshot of all this is that no matter where we live, if we are not farmers, we may not have much idea of the agricultural practices that are going on around us. So, to get to my point, do we know more than Mark Bittman?
I just read an article in the New York Times by Bittman, who clearly is a city guy. He has read about prairie strips as a conservation technique in Iowa and latched on to it as the next best thing after sliced bread. While prairie strips are interesting, they will not catch on for reasons that Bittman may not understand. Most of my neighbors rent the majority of their crop ground (farm fields, for you city people) from landlords. Often these landlords are retired farmers or their descendants who care most about the rent check on December 1 each year. Some farm ground in my area is owned by investors too. Therefore, as any good businessperson knows, the farmer (the renter) attempts to maximize his return each year. The quickest way to do that in our current system is to raise corn and soybeans, or continuous corn.Why would he spend on conservation measures when he doesn’t own the land?
For the record, I agree that we need to do much more conservation in the countryside. The two greatest concerns for many of us are (1) preserving soil health and topsoil and (2) cleaning up the water in our watersheds. Therefore, prairie strips, waterways, bio-reactors, no-till, cover crops, and terraces are all valuable conservation measures that we should be pursuing. However, a deep understanding of current agricultural practices in Iowa is necessary to understand how and why we do or do not use these conservation methods. It goes without saying, of course, that the number one consideration is to keep farmers on the land in a sustainable lifestyle.
Also for the record, conservation does not mean our grandfather’s farming methods. Precision agriculture, that is GIS-guided tools and software (yielding technical data) that farmers are using in their combine and tractor cabs, fits well with conservation farming. It’s not a question of low-tech conservation ag versus high-tech industrial ag at all. It’s a matter of utilizing all the tools we have to save our topsoil and our water; put another way, we need to farm with a long-term sustainable model in mind not a short-term profit minded model.