(Indianapolis) – April 20, 2023 — Farmers feed, shelter and power the world, and they take seriously the responsibility that comes with that critical role. To celebrate Earth Day, Indiana Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization, honors our land and everything Hoosier farmers do to protect and preserve the natural resources entrusted to them.
“Farmers are the original stewards of the land,” said INFB President Randy Kron. “We protect the land because it has given so much to us, and we want it to be around for future generations.”
Sustainability and efficiency go hand-in-hand whether you are a row crop farmer producing corn and soybeans using cover crops or no-tillage, a livestock farmer who is handling manure responsibly or a forester who is actively managing the woods.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is responsible for 10% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, much lower than transportation, electricity generation and industry. But farmers are continuously taking active steps to reduce their carbon footprint. INFB spoke to Hoosier farmers about their view of sustainability in agriculture and how they implement climate-friendly practices in their day-to-day work on the farm.
Jake Smoker, an INFB member from LaPorte County, is a fourth-generation farmer producing corn, soybeans and wheat, as well as cattle. The farm has been in his family since 1944.
“Day to day, we look at the operation as a holistic approach,” explained Smoker. “You need livestock to grow the row crop production and provide a nutrient cycle throughout the farming process. You can’t have one without the rest.”
Farmers are committed to properly handling the manure that is produced on the farm. Manure is not a waste to be disposed of, but a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer that allows farmers to be less reliant on commercially based fertilizers.
Livestock farms are highly regulated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management which ensures land application of manure only occurs during appropriate ground conditions and only at agronomic rates so that it can be properly utilized as fertilizer by a crop. If a farm does not abide by these prescribed rates, it is subject to penalties.
“Inputs and fertilizer are expensive,” said Smoker. “The more we can be good stewards by being prescriptive with manure and nutrient management, as well as using variable rate application, the more we are helping both the environment and our business.”
David McGaughey, an INFB member from Putnam County, is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer. The farm sits between two watersheds at the top of a hill, meaning the rolling property is prone to excessive runoff.
“Almost all of our farm is classified as highly erodible ground,” McGaughey explained. “The bottom of the hill gets a lot of erosion anytime we have rain or snow melt. The water runs off and takes the soil with it, which is why we use grass waterways.”
McGaughey Farms has more than 100 acres of grass waterways designed to move water across fields and reduce the negative effects of flow on croplands. This practice, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, uses grass as a natural filter, trapping vital nutrients that would otherwise be washed away.
McGaughey also plants filter strips, 40-foot-wide to 80-foot-wide grass sections, which run alongside creeks and naturally collect the eroded soil from getting into the waterways, causing contamination. McGaughey also practices no-till and plants cover crops.
“These conservation practices have been a big part of the operation over the past 10 to 20 years, and we have increased profitability because of it,” said McGaughey. “I’d like to leave the ground better than it was when we got it for whoever has it next.”
Nick Wenning, Decatur County Farm Bureau president, is no stranger to conservation and sustainability on his row crop farm. His family farm produces corn, soybeans and wheat. The farm has been 100% no-tillage for over 20 years, meaning they never till or plow the soil so nutrients stay locked in. No-till farming decreases the amount of soil erosion tillage causes in certain soils. Wenning also plants cover crops to replenish nutrients and hold down topsoil.
“We use variable rate technology to make sure we don’t over-apply fertilizer,” explained Wenning. “But if we do, that is the beauty of cover crops – they will absorb the fertilizer to eliminate any chance of runoff into waterways. By doing right by the ground, I get better crops. I get phenomenal yields for what I farm.”
According to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s 2022 Conservation Survey, Hoosier farmers planted cover crops and small grains on 1.5 million acres of farmland in late 2021, matching a record amount set in 2020. Because of those cover crops, it is estimated that 2.1 million tons of sediment was prevented from entering Indiana’s waterways, which is enough sediment to fill more than 597 Olympic-size swimming pools. Additionally, the 1.5 million acres of cover crops planted sequestered an amount of soil organic carbon that is the equivalent of 819,941 tons.
Sequestering carbon in the soil helps to offset greenhouse gas emissions, such as the carbon dioxide emitted by cars, power plants and other burning of fossil fuels. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service reports expected carbon sequestration of 0.37 metric tons/acre/year for cover crops for most regions of the U.S. Assuming this sequestration rate, current cover crop adoption sequesters 5.5 million metric tons of carbon per year. This is equivalent to taking 1.2 million passenger vehicles off the road each year, according to Purdue University’s Center for Commercial Agriculture.
Another natural practice of sequestering carbon is done in the forestry sector. Trees sequester carbon via photosynthesis and provide oxygen producing clean air. Woods that are harvested, or actively managed, with trees of varying ages will sequester carbon the best. Wood is a carbon sink because it lasts for years as a standing tree and takes years to break down after the tree dies.
Jeff Page, an INFB member from Johnson County, is a forester and timber buyer with Tri-State Timber in southern Indiana. He works with landowners and mill owners to procure, assess and harvest timber.
“Trees are truly a naturally renewable resource,” explained Page. “When actively managing woods, we use activities such as invasive species control, crop tree release, and most common, timber harvest. Active forest management maintains healthy vigorous woods and provides many tangible wood products, as well as other benefits such as carbon sequestration, disease removal, wildlife habitat and improved water quality.”
The hardwood industry is a sector of ag that makes a big economic impact. It consistently ranks in the top industries in the state. According to ISDA, Indiana’s hardwood industry has an annual economic impact of over $10 billion and supports 70,000 jobs, producing products such as furniture, buildings, cabinets and countertops.
“Forest management is a continuous process,” said Page. “There are few things in life where you can have your cake and eat it too, and forestry is one of them. Timber harvests provide a great product that filters into our state economy, yet the woods remain, regenerate and continue to grow again for future generations. To thrive in this industry, you have to think about what you are leaving for the next generation and be committed to stewardship.”
Throughout a variety of ag sectors, farmers are doing more with less thanks to innovation and technology, and they are continuously looking for ways to do more. In fact, INFB is a founding member of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which is composed of organizations representing farmers, ranchers, forest owners, the food sector, state governments and environmental advocates all working together to define and promote shared climate policy priorities.
Indiana producers remind consumers there is a lot of science and conscious thought that goes into everything they do on the land.
“Nothing is random and haphazard when it comes to farmers working on the land,” Smoker said. “I want to make sure that the ground is able to produce for my son’s and daughter’s generation. Stewardship is instilled in farmers. If we don’t take care of the ground, it doesn’t take care of us, so we are precise and purposeful in how we care for it.”
About Indiana Farm Bureau: For more than 100 years, Indiana Farm Bureau (INFB) has protected and enhanced the future of agriculture and our communities. As the state’s largest general farm organization, INFB works diligently to cultivate a thriving agricultural ecosystem to strengthen the viability of Indiana agriculture. Learn more at INFB.org.