DARKE COUNTY, Ohio — Something unusual was going on in Nathan Brown’s neighbor’s field. It was December, typically a slow month for harvest work, but the farmer down the street was pulling a no-till drill behind his tractor through a field of crops that Brown didn’t recognize.
“I thought, you know, what in the world is this guy doing?” said Brown, who owns a corn, soybean, hay, and beef cattle farm with his wife, Jennifer, in Highland County, Ohio.
He couldn’t figure out what was growing — it was too tall and lanky for wheat — so he made a point of meeting his neighbor that summer. Turns out, he had been tending to his field of cereal rye, a popular cover crop, a type of crop grown usually in off-seasons to improve soil health and mitigate erosion.
The pair got to talking about soil health and erosion, and soon Brown set aside one of his bean fields for a cereal rye crop of his own.
Interest in sustainable farming practices is building, and while independent and governmental conservation organizations can be good resources for promoting ecological practices, farmers say that swapping information peer-to-peer works best.
“I think the number one way this movement is growing, just like it grew with me, is from another farmer,” said Brown, a 40-year-old first-generation farmer.
It’s been 10 years since he spied his neighbor drilling in the winter chill. Today, he keeps 90% of his roughly 1,300 acres covered year-round.
Wide Lens Mobile phones are important information-sharing tools for rural farmers around the globe, but many lack access to data and internet service. Across Africa, less than 40% of farming households have internet access, according to a 2020 study published in Nature Sustainability.
The missing ingredient
Farmer interest in sustainability practices has grown, especially in soil health, said Taylor Dill, agriculture and natural resources educator for Ohio State University’s Darke County extension program.
It’s a national trend. The number of organic farms increased 39% from 2012 to 2017, according to the latest United States Department of Agriculture census, while the average farm put in place no-till practices on 374 acres of land, 29 more acres than in 2012. For cover crops, that average acreage increased from 77 to 100.
Dill said that younger farmers — “the next generation that will inherit the land” — show a particular interest. With farmers of any age, “one of the most effective ways that we can teach farmers is being able to have another farmer speak to another farmer about an experience. They’re going to listen to their peers,” she said.
Greg McGlinch owns and operates Down Home Farms in Darke County. “Word of mouth still means a lot in rural America,” he said.
Wide Lens Farmers use mobile phones to grow their businesses, but the cost of owning a phone can set them back. Low-income farmers in Asia spend anywhere from 11 to 24% of their income on mobile services, according to a 2009 study.
In that vein, Brown started the “Ohio Soil Health and Cover Crops” Facebook group, which has racked up over 1,600 followers as of August 30, 2021. The feed includes everything from no-till instructional videos to requests for advice on best ratios for soil additives.
Brown had a bad slug problem this year, but saw that the unwelcome pests weren’t showing up on his cover crop fields. He threw that idea out for the community to mull over. The page is there for farmers to crowd-source, said Brown — “to bounce ideas off of one another, or solutions.”
Farmers talk to each other. But that point is often missed on the national scale, Dill said. Much of the time, farmers are “overlooked,” she says, while the public, clamoring for sustainability measures, “want to go straight to having a policy rather than having a conversation first.”
That’s wonky, said Dill, since “all of those decisions directly affect producers."
Science in the field
Greg McGlinch’s farm is a checkerboard of harvestable crops, conservation practices and experimentation. On a clear June day, the 41-year-old farmer pointed out all the pieces from behind the wheel of a trundling four-wheeler.
There’s the strip of flowering plants between the forest grove, and a harvest field that acts as a habitat buffer. A low, concrete mass buried at one end of the creek is a head wall that keeps rainwater from ripping up the waterway’s banks. There’s the field of perennial wheatgrass that McGlinch said he didn’t quite know what to do with yet, except to “start playing and learning” how he could sell the hardy crop.
“It’s a real complex career,” he said, between deft sips of coffee from a sloshing mug as the four-wheeler tooled down a path toward his vegetable plot. McGlinch rotates the garden every year from one side to another, and moves the mobile chicken coop he built to the unoccupied side for a season of good fertilizer.
Learning these techniques — “it’s kind of hard knocks,” he said. “I do a lot of reading and researching and talking with friends and (seeing) what other farmers are doing.”
Sustainable farming practices aren’t just handed down from a lab to farmers, Dill said. Farmers often offer their own ideas; researchers try the ideas out on a farmer’s fields or at a small plot at a university, which publishes the results in peer-reviewed journals and in fact-sheets that farmers and extension educators use in field trips to disperse the information. And money is always part of the equation.
“When we’re talking with farmers, we’re talking about how we can be more sustainable,” Dill said, “but also we need to be able to make sure they’re still productive.”
It’s not a simple yes or no as to whether sustainability practices cut costs, Brown said. There are a lot of factors that make up the cost and profit of any one plot or field. He said he sees returns on expenses for seeding and tending cover crops in the reduced use of fertilizers and nutrient applications.
It’s a lot of looking forward, Brown said. If his soil is healthy, for example, it will hold more water, making his crops less vulnerable in dry years.
“When I sit down and look at my budgets,’ he said, “I don’t want this to be an extra expense.”
McGlinch also knows that balance well. “You’ve got to make a profit, or you can’t keep going,” he said. “At the same time, you’ve got to find a good balance, because we want to keep the land in the best shape.”
The farming industry hasn’t reached equilibrium yet, he said, but it can.
“We do need large-scale agriculture because we have a population to feed. It’s just a matter of how do we balance all that, too. I think there’s a way, it’s just, we’ve got to learn.”
It’s not all up to farmers, though. “At the end it’s going to come down to consumer decisions,” McGlinch said. “It’s the buying power. It’s what the consumer wants.”
About this series: The Planet Forward-FAO Summer Storytelling Fellows work was sponsored by the North America office of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Fellows were mentored by Lisa Palmer, GW’s National Geographic Professor of Science Communication and author of “Hot, Hungry Planet.”