How are farmers leading the way with conservation efforts? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Answer by Miriam Horn, of the Environmental Defense Fund and author of the recently published Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland, on Quora.
A growing number of heartland farmers, including Justin Knopf, the fifth-generation Kansas farmer I profile in my book, have moved to "no-till" farming. They don't ever plow, and leave every bit of residue--stalks, leaves, cobs--behind in the fields. That keeps the ground physically protected from wind and rain erosion, and cooler in the ever-increasing and searing heat. It preserves all of the fat channels opened by roots and worms and other organisms, allowing precious, scarce water to penetrate deep into the soil. It also leaves the microbial communities intact, happily delivering nitrogen and phosphorus to plants in exchange for some plant sugars, working together to ward off destructive invaders, holding carbon in the soil and the soil itself together in big pliable chunks.
Farmers like the Knopfs are also adding more diversity by planting mixed cover crops, which they never harvest but leave to protect and re-nourish the soil. They might put in mustard, canola, and cabbage to provide a protective canopy, radishes to open up macropores, vetch and cowpeas to scavenge nitrogen from the soil and bank it for the next crop, and fast-growing oats and barley to outcompete weeds. Many farmers are also planting buffer strips to further prevent leakage and to provide habitat for pollinators, including monarch butterflies, in some cases helped along by market incentives.
Like every choice in farming, these strategies involve trade-offs. Though Justin has plans to integrate animals into his farm to graze off his cover crops and help manage weeds, for now he uses herbicides like Round-Up to "burn down" both. Most organic farmers make the opposite choice: avoiding chemical herbicides by tilling. But most soil microbiologists believe that causes greater ecological harm. And tests of Justin's soils show ever-increasing abundance, diversity, and vitality of microbial life.
Farmers are also working to intensify productivity on every acre they farm, to help spare more forests and grasslands from being destroyed.
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