Farmers realize the importance of biodiversity, which refers to the variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms above and below the soil within an ecosystem.
Farms are ecosystems in and of themselves. Each part, from the soil to the animals that live there to the crops themselves, has an important role to play. A change in this delicate system can have wide-reaching effects, so farmers understand that the decisions they make on their land must be considered carefully.
There are many agricultural practices that promote biodiversity. Many of the practices listed below have been around for at least 40 years, but they have seen an uptick in interest from farmers in recent years; those involved in agriculture have learned more about the importance of biodiversity on the farm. With more research underway into the benefits of the practices and technologies, we can expect to see more interest down the road. And that’s good for biodiversity.
Tilling the soil is the practice of using a tool, like a plow, to turn up the soil. This practice helps to turn over the residue from the previous crop, provide loose soil to make it easier for seeds to take root, and disturb weed growth. However, this practice can increase the potential for soil erosion.
Conservation tillage minimizes the soil disturbance by using tools that turn over the soil lightly or hardly at all in some cases. The practice can leave some crop residue on the surface to lessen the opportunity for the soil to erode. Conservation tillage is increasing on farms: In 1983, only 17 percent of all U.S. farmland was in conservation tillage. In 2013, that rose to 63 percent. The main benefit of this method is that it aids in building organic matter for the soil.
Cover crops are those planted by farmers in between the harvest of one cash crop and the planting of another. These crops, such as rye or radishes, can assist with soil conservation, keeping soil from eroding and returning nutrients and benefits to the soil for future crops. Cover crops also provide habitat for birds and insects. In a survey by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) to more than 1,900 farmers, participants increased cover crops acreage on their farms by 30 percent each year because of the benefits they provide.
In the United States, some farmers receive payments from the government to enroll a portion of their land in the Conservation Reserve Program, which encourages farmers to “remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.” This land also serves as habitat for wildlife and can improve water quality.
Land conservation is truly a global effort. In Brazil, farmers are working with Conservation International and local stakeholders to implement better techniques to restore biodiversity in one of the most unique ecosystems in the world: the Cerrado. In Indonesia, another key biodiversity hotspot, farmers are participating in the Sustainable Agriculture Landscape project, which helps farmers meet the objectives of producing food and conserving habitat.
Buffer strips are wide strips of land, usually grass, between fields of crops that help ease soil erosion and water runoff. These strips of land also can provide habitat for birds and animals. They are particularly beneficial in areas with hilly terrain.
Many farmer and environmental groups connect to learn from each other on best practices to improve soil health, water quality, and air quality. For example, one such group is the Iowa Soybean Association, which works to “employ principles of cooperative conservation, planning, applied evaluation and adaptive implementation (to engage) partners in action-oriented, on-the-ground programs, projects, and initiatives.”
“We have improved how we farm over time, and while we have some work to do to continue to improve, I’m confident we will continue to balance the needs of producing food sustainably with the needs of the environment,” said Spears. “For example, we want to use the least amount of inputs, such as pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides as possible. We don’t want to overuse inputs, as that may impact the environment, and it hurts our bottom line. We are much more precise with our applications. We’ll continue to get better. It’s as important to farmers as much as it is for consumers who eat the food we produce.”