Times Argus: Farmers as stewards of land
There are a lot of exciting things happening on Vermont’s farms these days. We’ve just had the second Breakfast on the Farm event this year, where Vermonters from all over got a taste of what it’s like to live and work on a dairy farm. And, the University of Vermont is holding several Crops and Soils Field Days to highlight innovations, research and new approaches to farming.
Having the public understand what farmers do, what a farm looks and smells like, and get some hands-on experience of their own is vital. That includes learning how cows are milked, and what we are doing to protect our land — something that’s important not just now, but for our future generations.
And farmers are doing a lot. Whether operating an organic farm or not, all farmers — including dairy, beef, vegetable and even forestry — are using more and newer sustainable practices and techniques than they were just a few years ago. All of this minimizes the impact on the land while providing enough safe, healthy food and fiber to feed the world’s increasing population.
For instance, a lot of our farmers are presently practicing regenerative farming, although they may not call it that, by using cover cropping, where they plant a crop such as grass or small grains to protect the soil during “off” seasons. Cover cropping helps prevent erosion while also improving the soil quality. And it protects our water. This is often done alongside other practices such as no-till, minimal-till, and crop rotation. Crop rotation involves growing a planned sequence of different crops on the same tract of land to increase plant diversity and improve soil health. No-till and minimal till (also known as conservation tillage) are exactly what they say — less land or no land tilled. This farming practice increases organic matter in the soil, while simultaneously causing increased productivity because the organic residue left on the soil surface decomposes, thanks to earthworms and other organisms.
I’ve been a second-generation feed dealer in the Bennington area for more than 50 years. I’ve worked with so many farmers I’ve lost count, but I never forget that Vermont farmers are a proud and hard-working lot. They love what they do. They almost have to, because it’s certainly not the biggest money maker by a long shot. It’s physically demanding and the hours are grueling.
And there’s so much they can’t control, being subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Rain can make or break a crop, as we all know from the weather we’ve had this year. To that end, other sustainable practices help farmers weather the storms. Most of our farmers use GMO seeds. These seeds require less pesticide and fertilizer use, which means farmers can farm less land while reaping maximum yields. In fact, a 2015 study found that farmers used nearly 50 million fewer acres of land by using GMO seeds. And science has proven the seeds are safe.
Tile drainage is something else farmers are doing to protect water, crops and soil. It removes excess water from below the soil’s surface — think of it as plumbing — allowing healthy roots to develop and plants to absorb more nutrients.
Some of our larger farms have installed methane digesters to process the manure from their farms in a generator that produces renewable electricity. You’ve probably heard of Cow Power, where thousands of homes get their energy because of this renewable resource. It also produces bedding for the cows, rather than using wood chips.
Farming isn’t easy. Soils vary from county to county, farm to farm and even within a farm. What works in one place may not work in another due to the soil type, and that’s why our farmers use a variety of sustainable techniques. We should be proud of what they are doing and their dedication to being stewards of a precious commodity — land. For them, it is sacred.
Art Whitman is vice president of the Vermont Feed Dealers and Manufacturers Association. He was owner and president of Whitman’s Feed Store Inc. in North Bennington and owns A&K Agriservices LLC, which provides custom applications of fertilizers and lime. He lives in Shaftsbury.