Food security

Why do farmers care about conservation?

An American poet once said, “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.” Many of us can relate to this quote, as self-proclaimed outdoor adventurists.

This quote especially rings true for farmers and ranchers. They rely on the land for a bountiful harvest, mother nature for her cooperation, and the outdoors for their lifestyle.

stream between two piece of land
Streams on farms are common. Edge-of-field practices like prairie strips help prevent erosion and keep nutrients from escaping into nearby water. Credit: R Leege

Over 90% of American farms are family owned. So, the preservation of natural resources will also likely determine the success of a farm as it’s handed down to the generations to come. Caring for these resources is also like an unwritten agreement between neighbors, as the resources like water are shared. Ultimately, farmers cannot afford to not take care of the land – it supplies their income, recreation and future dreams.

Many farmers pay extra attention to the long-term balance of natural resources related to their farmland and adjacent land and water. This is known as “sustainability.” The success of their farm operations depends on maintaining this balance of resources including water, nutrients and soil.

It’s easy to find examples of public land being set aside for conservation efforts and wildlife habitat. The United States Bureau of Land Management even has a specific program called the National Conservation Lands protecting about 34 million acres of land. However, conservation on private lands makes up the majority of habitat for wildlife in the U.S. Private landowners, like farmers, play a vital role in the game of conservation.

Farmers and ranchers are looking into ways to protect the ecological balance on their land now more than ever. And, the public is paying attention.

Restoring ecological balance

One way farmers and ranchers are restoring ecological balance is by returning unproductive farmland back into prairie habitat. Why would farmers take land out of crop production when we have a growing population? Because the long-term effects of protecting the resources we need to grow our food outweigh the decrease in food production and on-farm income.

flowers with bees and butterflies
Natural areas provide food and habitat to attract pollinators, which are needed to pollinate crops. Credit: Pete Leege

Areas of prairie habitat between farm fields, such as buffer strips or entire blocks of prairie, can provide many benefits. Prairie plants and grasses have huge root systems that keep fertile topsoil in place. When heavy rains or windy storms come, prairies prevent soil from washing away.  In turn, nutrients and soil stay in place in the field for the next year’s crop to grow.

Prairie habitats also add to ecological diversity. Agriculture is not natural. Fields of one crop are grown, which creates a “monoculture” system. Monocultures can disrupt the natural balance of a food chain. This can make the area prone to pests that eat crops and weeds that steal nutrients. Without a balanced food chain, there are not enough natural predators or competing plants around to keep them at bay. By planting areas of prairie, farmers can restore the food chain by giving native mammals, birds and insects a place to thrive. These native species can help keep agricultural pest populations in check.

Another undeniable benefit of natural prairies is their beauty. Prairies can create privacy, provide colorful flowers throughout the year, and give home to endless wildlife. Many of us enjoy these benefits through our hobbies – photography, hiking, wildlife watching, and more.

How were these natural systems broken?

Throughout history, some human practices unintentionally decreased natural habitats. This is quite evident in suburban areas where fields and forests are quickly turning into housing, schools, and stores. Urban areas aren’t the only culprit, though.

combine and truck
Large farm equipment – necessary for farm efficiency – take wide turns. This means that some natural areas were put into agricultural land. There is a movement to re-plant prairies for ecological conservation. Credit: R Leege

For example, larger farm equipment has become much more prevalent in recent years. Larger equipment helps farmers save time with fewer trips around the field and allows them to care for more land in the same amount of time. However, larger equipment also made it more difficult to take care of smaller fields with less space to turn around. So, former natural areas between fields and along fence lines were removed to accommodate equipment.

Challenges and solutions

Creating prairie habitat also presents farmers and ranchers with their fair share of challenges. The biggest is cost. Not only the costs of seed and equipment to start a prairie, but also the opportunity cost for not growing profitable crops on that land.

Luckily, with increased support for our environment and ecosystems, there are tools available to help farmers with these costs. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has conservation programs to help reduce soil erosion, protect water quality and increase wildlife habitat. Included with these programs are funding opportunities for farmers and other landowners. Financial and technical assistance can help some farmers start conservation planning, implement conservation practices in their operations, improve habitat, improve water quality and more. There are even innovation grants for innovative approaches for conservation on agricultural land.

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love the outdoors. We care about the environment, and we want to protect our natural ecosystems. Farmers are right there with us!

Answered by Rachel Leege, Certified Crop Adviser

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About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

2 replies »

  1. There is a lesson here from tribal peoples who regard themselves as part of nature. Food production and conservation can be carefully combined. This is especially relevant given growing threats to food security plus one recent estimate from Prof Gordon Marshall at the Leverhulme Institute that eleven fully used planets would be needed for everyone to have well-off US lifestyles and jobs to afford them. Reducing waste and restoring fish stocks make perfect sense too of course.

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