A delegation of major food purchasers, including representatives from companies such as Kraft, Kellogg's and Sodexo, recently made several stops in the heart of Iowa to talk to farmers about farming and the care of farmland. Their visit was the second leg of a three-state "Soy Sustainability Farm Tour," organized by the United Soybean Board to help visitors learn about sustainability at the beginning of the food supply chain – from farmers who produce the raw materials.
Wes Newton, who directs soy procurement for Kellogg's, was impressed by what he saw. "The presentations we heard, our time on the farms, and seeing the equipment and the planted fields was valuable learning for us," he says. "It was especially beneficial to speak with farmers about their operations and hear them discuss what they are doing to both optimize output and conserve resources."
Newton and his industry counterparts, accompanied by Iowa Soybean Association's Environmental Programs and Services staff and partners, traveled to the Boone River Watershed, where they saw firsthand the environmental benefits of farmer-led soil and water conservation efforts.
First-hand look at environmental benefits of farmer-led conservation efforts
ISA's director of environmental programs, Roger Wolf, explained to the group, "Because it is 85% row-cropped, the Boone watershed has been identified as one of four ag key watersheds targeted by the Mississippi River Basin Initiative program, which offers financial incentives for farmers to use qualifying conservation practices that will help them achieve continuous improvement at the field, farm and watershed levels."
The tour stopped at farms of ISA members Tim Smith of Eagle Grove and Arlo Van Diest of Webster City. Farmers shared their experiences in using numerous practices on their farms to improve water quality, prevent soil loss and improve biodiversity.
For Smith, the tour provided an opportunity to showcase several new practices, particularly the cover crops he's now using on the farm that has belonged to his family since 1881. "I believe the cover crop may be the most important part of the process," Smith says. "It adds plant matter to the soil, and keeps nitrogen from going into the tile lines, making the N available instead for my growing crop. In addition, the deep roots keep the soil from eroding, help hold moisture and are good for porosity."
Showing customers farmers can produce soybeans in a sustainable manner
Of hosting the group, Smith says, "Knowing these folks were coming to see our world and what's going on here in Iowa, to take the message back to their companies and their management teams, I wanted to share the process of where we've been and what we're doing now. It's important to show our consumers we can produce soybeans in a manner that preserves and enhances our critical soil and water resources."
A few miles away, Arlo Van Diest, an early adopter of many conservation practices, spoke about his two bioreactors, which help to denitrify the tile water leaving his farm, and pointed out his buffer strips. "But then I want to show you what I am most passionate about," Van Diest said. "That is strip till."
He explained how strip till prepares a narrow area for seed, applying nutrients where they are most available for the plant and leaving the rest of the soil undisturbed.
Van Diest said, "The plant has an ideal bed; there's a zone for water and the nitrogen is in the right place for the plant."
Getting questions answered and learning why farmers farm the way they do
The guests asked many questions about the process of crop production and what drives farmers to do what they do.
The group also learned from The Nature Conservancy in Iowa's Director of Conservation Science Jen Filipiak about the value of a recently restored oxbow, the first of several planned for the watershed. They observed the water quality and biodiversity benefits of this simple improvement on non-productive land. Results are measured from water monitoring by ISA and TNC through a Fishers & Farmers Partnership project.
Wolf anticipates the successful tour will serve as a catalyst for additional visits by representatives of the food system. "We hope this will be followed by more opportunities to show to the food industry how Iowa soybean farmers are working to improve crop production while also enhancing their environmental performance."
To learn more about ISA, visit its website at www.iasoybeans.com.