Steve Berger is a farmer in Wellman who has used cover crops for decades and works with other farmers to teach the benefits of them. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen
A new report from the activist group Mighty Earth says that America’s taste for meat and the crops that support it are “driving widespread water contamination across the country, destroying America’s last native prairies, and releasing potent greenhouses gases.”
For evidence, it points to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” a large area near the delta of the Mississippi River, where high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus and low levels of oxygen can suffocate aquatic life.
To address this problem, Mighty Earth proposes a new cause that’s fit for a bumper sticker: pollution-free feed. The group singles out Tyson Foods but wants all meat processors to force crop farmers into adopting a series of practices to prevent soil erosion and absorb runoff, which contribute to the growth of the dead zone each summer.
Here’s the irony: We’re already doing it.
As an Iowa farmer who grows corn and soybeans to feed my hogs, I’m always striving to provide my customers — including Tyson Foods — the very best I can deliver. I’m also aware of agriculture’s impact on the environment and constantly searching for ways to improve. Compared to 10 years ago, we’re using far fewer resources to produce a pound of meat.
Sometimes the solutions are amazingly simple. Consider the case of cover crops. I started using them about five years ago as a way to protect soil health.
All summer long, I devote my farm acreage to corn and soybeans. Most of it becomes animal feed for hogs, chickens and cattle.
Following our harvest in September or October, we plant cereal rye in these same fields. It grows in the fall, sits in the winter, and grows again in the spring. Then, without tilling the soil, I no-till plant my corn and soybeans directly into that field for another season, lessening the human impact on the environment.
The cereal rye is a cover crop — and its single purpose is to protect our land when we’re not in Iowa’s traditional growing season. The roots of these plants cling to the soil, building organic matter. They guard against erosion and prevent water from draining away phosphorous and nitrogen.
This serves both economic and environmental interests. By making my soil healthier, cover crops give me a better yield later. By fighting the problem of soil erosion and runoff, cover crops are also a tool of conservation.
Five years ago, I knew next to nothing about cover crops. Then I heard about them and started to experiment. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine from Argentina, he laughed: He’d been planting cover crops for a generation.
The concept has spread in our country, but the practice is far from universal.
I’ve held demonstrations on my farm and I’m confident that cover crops will become increasingly popular. They make so much sense.
Will cover crops make my farm pollution free? No way. Agriculture is an outdoor business. Let’s not kid ourselves.
My experience with cover crops, however, suggests that while we can’t conquer Mother Nature, we can learn to work with her — and adapt our farming in ways that allow us to conserve our resources and improve the soil.
Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a northeast Iowa family farm. He serves as vice chairman and volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.