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Conservation on the farm: A way of life

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Editor's note: The following story was provided by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered these words that undoubtedly still ring true today, "The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself."

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For generations of Minnesota farmers, there is no choice between profits and the environment. Conservation is a way of life, as well as a sound business decision. But it is also a personal mission; ensuring a smooth transition to the next generation who will keep farming alive in the state.

David Craigmile, a corn and soybean farmer in Boyd, Minnesota, knows this all too well.

"Farmers, like everyone, must always balance the tradeoffs between providing for people and protecting nature," said Craigmile.

Craigmile is one of a number of corn growers in Minnesota employing some form of soil conservation, whether it's reduced tillage, strip tillage or grassy buffer zones between fields and feeder streams. Farmers have learned to "farm the best and buffer the rest." This philosophy is supported by government conservation initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In 2011 there were 1.63 million acres of land protected under CRP in Minnesota.

The iconic image of U.S. agriculture - combines and tractors in fields of golden grain - might give the impression that farming has been untouched by the technology revolution. But the reality is that innovation and technology have enabled farmers to produce more, with less impact on the environment.

"Of all the farming technologies with the potential to protect the environment and improve efficiency, I believe genetically modified crops have made the biggest impact in recent years and will continue to do so in the future," added Craigmile.

His farm transitioned from the old moldboard plowing system to a chisel-disc conservation tillage system years ago. Conservation tillage protects the soil from wind and water erosion by leaving crop residue on the surface. And like most corn farmers, he no longer has to cultivate several times a year to control weeds. Craigmile plants genetically modified crops that tolerate the United States Environmental Protection Agency-approved broad-spectrum herbicides for weed control. Fewer tillage trips across the field reduces soil disturbance, improves water infiltration and saves fuel, which is good for both profits and the environment.

According to a Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) survey, Minnesota corn growers planted about 3 million acres with conservation tillage last year.

Buffer strips, wetland restoration, conservation tillage and high yielding crops are helping achieve the desired outcome of protecting water resources. In the Minnesota River watershed, the US Geological Survey (USGS) Centennial Stream Gage at Mankato shows that landscape storage and evapotranspiration have been increasing in the last decade on into 2010 which helps decrease net runoff into our streams and rivers. This has happened despite National Weather Service data that shows precipitation increased during that same period.

Farmers now grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930's on 20 percent less land, with each farmer feeding about 125 people. By being land-efficient in our food production, more land is available for wildlife habitat, recreation and homes for people.

ABOUT MINNESOTA CORN GROWERS ASSOCIATION

MCGA is a membership-based organization dedicated to identifying and promoting opportunities for corn farmers while enhancing quality of life.

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