When Economic and Environmental Conservation Meet

Sometimes a rare synergy occurs and making the right environmental choices also happens to result in making the right economic choices. For those who want to promote a capitalism-driven method of environmental conservation, these instances of dovetailing interests and actions are incredibly useful arguments to be able to bring out when confronted with claims that doing the right thing for the Earth simply isn’t feasible or practical. Farming provides a number of test case examples demonstrably proving that treating the Earth well results in better economic outcomes for farmers and that in many cases, smart small farmers were doing the right thing all along before industrial agriculture changed the face of the industry.

Grist recently profiled farmer David Ausberger, who found that he could save money on his farm and further his interest in conservation, essentially a win-win situation. How? By, among other things, not tilling.

He’s part of a generation of farmers that, quite reasonably, wants to save money on the costs of running their operations, and knows that in the process, he’s sparing the environment. By cutting down on equipment use, chemicals, and other things that industrial agriculture pushes as ‘standard’ on farms, he’s changing the ecological and economic profile of his spread, creating a world of less waste. Less waste means less money out the door or leaching out into the river, which in turn generates high profits, but it also helps the environment; for example, he’s careful about how he applies fertilizer so that it ends up on his crops, not in the environment where it can cause nitrogen pollution, which leads to water quality problems.

His no till approach is also a critical part of how he farms. In industrial agriculture, farmers repeatedly till, churning up the soil between crops and adding in soil amendments. While this might seem intuitive, it’s actually not; tilling breaks up vital communities of microorganisms in the soil, creates layers of loose dirt on top, and impairs soil health. Not tilling allows soil to build up a rich, complex biome, which is ideal for growing a wide variety of crops. Ausberger, in other words, isn’t just a man who grows crops, he’s also a man who farms dirt, creating ideal soil health on his farm to promote better yields and improve the long-term prospects for his farm.

He also selects his crops with care, turning to those that grow well in his region of Iowa instead of trying to force crops to thrive. Selecting plants for the climate and soil conditions results in less work during production, and, again, higher yields. Instead of growing water-intensive crops that would require a substantial investment of both time and money, he concentrates on crops like corn that thrive in the Iowa landscape. His two chief crops are corn and soy, which are necessarily the most ecologically friendly since they primarily go to animal feed and biofuels, but he’s also responding to the market — and could shift the balance of his fields if he had an incentive to do so.

It’s a far cry from industrial approaches, which strip the soil at great expense to both the farmer and the environment. When soil is abused for season after season, it requires more amendments and constant work to get it producing anything, and the yield can drop year by year even as farmers push the soil harder. The trending towards industrial methods has shoved many small farmers out of the business because they can’t afford the equipment, chemicals, and practices promoted by industrial agriculture. In addition, of course, it’s wreaked havoc on the natural environment, leading to huge nutrient blooms in major waterways, significant soil erosion, and a variety of other problems.

Conversely, conservation-oriented farming practices are ecologically sustainable for small farmers, since they rely on spending less money to generate more profits. Along the way, they also benefit the natural environment, creating a relationship between farmers and the land they tend that’s more holistic and interactive than that of industrial farmers. For families struggling to maintain family farms or trying to get out of the industrial agriculture business, this provides a functional alternative that allows them to retain their traditions, make farming profitable in an era when it sometimes seems impossible to do so, and steward the environment.

Many small farmers have owned their land for generations and are connected with it not just as an income and food source but also as a place with family history. Farmers may have hunted and fished on their land for generations, for example, in addition to using it for other forms of recreation. Leaving a family farm can be wrenching, as can selling off parts of it to pay for the costs of running the farm — and chewing up good soil with harsh chemicals and heavy equipment may be seen as the only way to increase yields enough to make the farm economically viable. Men like Ausberger are showing that there’s another path available, in the form of a return to the old ways.

He’s not the only farmer taking on a new perspective when it comes to how he handles his land. One of the promising aspects of Ausberger’s philosophy and approach to farming is that it can be justified on purely economic grounds, making it appealing as an option to promote to the larger farming community. For conservationists concerned about the health of the planet, taking the angle that doing the right thing will net more money is likely to have better results with farmers concerned about the bottom line than simply asking farmers to abandon practices they think of as more profitable.

Plowing team in New Zealand by Trevor Dennis, Flickr.