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Published December 16, 2013, 09:44 AM

Sustainability essential to farmers

Farmers and ranchers across the U.S. constantly are working to improve how we farm to ensure a sustainable industry.

By: Gene Stoel, Agweek

Farmers and ranchers across the U.S. constantly are working to improve how we farm to ensure a sustainable industry. We do this not only for ourselves but for the people who will depend on the environment many years after us. As a soybean farmer in Minnesota, I am committed to that mission, as well as the high quality of our products.

Soybeans are the only plant source of complete protein. Many people don’t know they also are used to create many other products for American families, from human and animal food to furniture, home heating oil and even clothing.

Knowing how many people our crops can feed nutritiously and ensuring our growing methods protect the environment and our land for future generations of farmers is not optional. It’s essential to our business.

Recent strides

In recent years, soybean farmers have worked together to make significant strides to grow our crops in a way that is safe for the environment. A recent study, “Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance to Sustainable Agriculture,” uncovered remarkable statistics that further demonstrate and quantify our sustainabl growing practices.

Growing soybeans is more resource-efficient than ever. In fact, from 1980 to 2011, per-bushel land use decreased 35 percent, soil erosion decreased 66 percent, the amount of irrigation water used decreased 42 percent, energy use decreased 48 percent and greenhouse gas emissions decreased 49 percent. What’s more remarkable is many of the improvements in per-acre soil erosion occurred primarily in the first half of the study period and have remained constant since the mid-1990s, a testament to the quick adoption of new, more-efficient farming techniques and the dedication to sustainable agriculture by farmers nationwide.

Continuous effort

Farmers have focused on continuously improving our methods while working to protect natural resources. Creating more while using less is a core tenet of sustainable practices. Total soybean production increased 96 percent and yield (bushels per planted acre) increased 55 percent in the same 31-year period.

My family farm can serve as an example. When I took over in 1990, there were improvements that needed to be made to make the farm as productive as possible. We rebuilt the waterways to help control runoff and installed water-retention structures and subsurface drainage to help slow down surface water to reduce sediment load downstream.

Along with reducing sediment, we started to test the soil in two-acre grids to find out what nutrients were needed and where they were needed. This was the first step in the precision farming of today.

Now, I apply the fertilizer according to the prescription developed with the help of my agronomist. Seed is selected based on what varieties perform the best based on soil type and whether we need special traits for weed or anticipated insect pressure. The planter is controlled via satellite to eliminate over-seeding near field borders and waterways.

Throughout the growing season, we continually scout for weed and insect problems. When we have to spray, the sprayer is controlled by satellite to avoid the over-application of pesticides. When it comes time to harvest, maps are made, recording yield to help evaluate the programs we used throughout the year as a guide to help plan for the next crop.

Farmer’s role

As a farmer, I play an important role in ensuring the American public knows its farming and ranching families are dedicated to putting safe, high-quality food on its tables. I also want the public to know that the food, regardless of production method, is being raised sustainably to conserve resources for future generations. As a third-generation farmer, I want to be able to pass along that tradition to my children and future generations, who will continue to look for ways to improve America’s agricultural industry.

Nothing is more important to me than making sure my children and grandchildren have the opportunity to be able to farm and produce food for future generations. That would be impossible if I were to betray the trust of the consumer or not produce food in a sustainable manner. I celebrate how far we have come as an industry and look to the future of continuously improving my operation for those who will come after me.

Editor’s note: Stoel, of Lake Wilson, Minn., is a soybean farmer who emphasizes sustainable food production and practices.