Sustainable Farming: Is There a Payoff?

Last updated on February 14th, 2024

Originally published by U.S. Farmers & Ranchers In Action. Read the article on their website here.

Farmers like Jared Hagert in North Dakota and the Schlichting family in Minnesota are finding good reasons to adopt sustainable farming practices. The emphasis on crop diversity and healthy soils is not just good for the environment — it adds to the bottom line, too.

Hagert is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Northwood, North Dakota. “I believe farming rests on a three-legged stool of economics, conservation and social responsibility. Being sustainable means you serve all three,” he says.

Most farmers understand the first two legs — economics and conservation. The two support each other, Hagert says. For instance, he makes widespread use of cover crops in his fields to protect the soil and nutrients through the off-season. Rye seeded in early September provides another growing root mass at a time of year when soils often lie bare.

The economic payoff comes in several ways. The biomass mat on the soil surface suppresses early weed competition the following spring, potentially eliminating one application of herbicide and saving him $25 per acre or more.

Cover crops use up excess surface moisture in the spring, helping to dry out soils. “They work like a subsurface drain tile, getting us in the field quicker,” explains Hagert.

Some deep-rooted cover crops, like radishes, also help break up compacted soil. The payoff there is in eliminating a trip with a chisel plow (a farm implement used for deep tillage) to break up compaction, which saves at least a gallon of diesel fuel per acre.

Variable-rate technology is another way he achieves economic and conservation sustainability. “We split most of our fields into three to five zones, based on the data we have collected,” he says. “We put more nutrients in the zones where it will maximize the return on investment.” Other zones get less, which prevents overapplication and saves money.

The third leg of Hagert’s farm stool — social responsibility — is something farmers don’t often talk about, but something many practice. He breaks it down like this: Farmers must be good citizens and adhere to government laws and regulations, such as safety protocols. They also must be aware of the people around them, including employees, neighbors, business suppliers and even consumers, respecting the needs of all. And they should maintain a “giving back” mentality that goes along with being a contributor to society.

Photo Credit: Andrew Kornylak

He thinks his farm’s use of modern technology contributes to its social responsibility. “We have the ability to show you when we sprayed or planted or applied fertilizer, what products we used, at what rates, and more,” he says. “Not everyone will want to see all that data, but someone might, and we want to be transparent.”

Is there a payoff? Hagert thinks these efforts have the potential to let them create a supply loop back to the farm. “The documentation of what we did and when we did it could be a marketing point for our farm,” he says.

He also points to the variety of ways farmers are involved in communities, such as county boards, schools, volunteer groups and commodity organizations. “They give us an opportunity to share about our farms in a positive way. It’s hard to put a dollar value to it, but I think it’s part of sustainability.”

Prairie Farms in central Minnesota is managed by Richard Schlichting and his daughter, Jocelyn Schlichting Hicks. Their goal is to operate the farm in such a way that they can do it forever, Hicks says. “It’s doing things to improve the land, being mindful of the natural things around you and protecting the water, too, Schlichting adds. “We’ve been doing sustainable practices for over 30 years, and we’re still here.”

They, too, start with cover crops as a key part of their sustainability practices. They usually seed cereal rye in the fall after harvesting potatoes or kidney beans, and the rye grows until the next planting season. They grow the seed rye themselves, and it costs about $12 per acre to grow and seed. They do it in combination with other fieldwork to limit field traffic and cost.

Their three-crop rotation — kidney beans, potatoes and corn — is also an integral part of their sustainability. Corn in the rotation breaks up the life cycle of some pests, particularly potato bugs, and saves pesticide expense.

Fertilizer applications are done in smaller shots throughout the season to reduce the potential for nutrient runoff or leaching into water sources. It also often saves money. Some fields get four or more fertilizer applications during the growing season, usually through the irrigation system.

“If I had to decide in June what total nitrogen to put on a corn field, I’d probably put on 100% of what I thought it needed, to make sure the crop doesn’t run out,” Schlichting says. “But with our system, the last application can be delayed to tasseling time; we decide then whether we need it or not. Sometimes that means we cut our nitrogen applications by at least 10%.”

More recently, Prairie Farms added automatic row shutoff technology (which eliminates double-planted areas) to its planters and section control (which reduces overapplication of spray) for all input applications to reduce input quantity and cost. All of their fields are irrigated, and the row shutoffs are especially valuable in the field corners where the irrigation water doesn’t reach. In sandy soils, those corners yield very poorly, essentially wasting that seed. “In the first year with the row shutoffs, we saved 50 bags of corn seed,” Hicks says. “That can pay for a lot of technology.”

It’s another reason the family says sustainable farming doesn’t cost; it pays. “It adds to our profitability,” Schlichting says.