GREEN WEEK: WATER QUALITY

Its Green Week and we’re all supposed to be making an effort to think about recycling what can be used again and reducing what we throw away in the first place.  This includes water.

Yes, this morning I caught my sweet little five-year-old with the water running while he put toothpaste on his toothbrush.  This week, and every week, I quickly turned the water off for him in order to use less.  I’m telling you, my week in Texas taught me that water is a MUCH more precious resource than I had taken time to realize.

Farmers realize it though.  Their livelihood, as well as their very lives, depend on water.  Having enough water is important, yes, but the quality of the water they leave behind is equally as important.

NOTE: During a Chicago mom meet-up for Illinois Farm Families, one of the Chicago mom’s was surprised to learn that farm families use water from a well on their property.  They do not have access to city water that has been through a treatment plant.  This is an example of how urban and rural folks just have understanding gaps!  Having grown up on a farm, I would have never thought to detail to an urban dweller how our water comes from a well.  The urbanite would have never considered a means for getting water other than what they had always known!  Point to the story, farmers and their families live off water from a well nearby to their home that is untreated excepting the natural filtration of dirt and rock.  Makes sense that we wouldn’t want to ruin it with chemicals and other nastiness so we’re pretty careful.

What exactly are farmers doing about water quality?  How are they ensuring that the water they leave behind is as good as they found it?

Well, first of all, farmers are very thoughtful about how they use water.  They never apply more chemicals or fertilizers than are needed and with the addition of GPS, they are able to only apply products to the exact area of the field that needs help rather than the whole field.  These things help.

Farmers are also studying how the fertilizers and chemicals that they apply leave the field.  Tiling is very popular in Illinois to remove excess water from the field during times of heavy rainfall, but when we make it even easier for water to exit the field without soil, sand, and rock to slow it down, naturally more fertilizers and chemicals will leave with it.

What we’ve found is that if we apply our products at the right time of the year, we minimize how much leaves the field.  That’s a positive.

And our research is leading us to some interesting conclusions about how farm ground performs in terms of nutrient runoff compared to ground with other uses.  Thinking logically, municipalities (where much of the ground is covered with concrete and the water isn’t absorbed into the ground to be filtered naturally) might have high nutrient runoffs because fertilizers are quickly transported via water running through streets and drainage systems.  Wooded areas (think leaves falling, organic matter decomposing all winter and then nutrients flushed out when the snow melts and spring rains hit) can have a significant nutrient runoff, especially during key times of the year.  These sorts of things are being researched through the Discovery Farms system in Wisconsin.

Bottom line, farmers are concerned about water quality.  They and their families have to drink the water they leave behind!  So they are thoughtful and deliberate about every action they take in order to preserve their way of live for future generations.

And THAT’S how Illinois farmers celebrate Green Week.

Lindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

GREEN WEEK: CONSERVING ENERGY

energy conservation, wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion, farm, farming, agricultureReminder: It’s Green Week.  Are you recycling more?  Refusing to throw away any food?  Considering every single drive across town to make sure it is completely necessary?

That’s what Illinois farmers are doing.  Every single trip across the field is given thoughtful consideration because farmers realize that every trip means more fossil fuels used and more air pollution in their neighborhood.

Remember the no-till practice that we talked about yesterday?  Its adoption has meant many fewer trips over the field to till the soil  resulting in

309 million gallons of fuel being conserved each year.

That’s progress.

Additionally, farmers now have GPS systems in almost every tractor.  Yes, non-farmers and farmers alike joke that they don’t even have to steer the tractors anymore, but that isn’t what GPS systems are about.

GPS within tractors means that while tilling the soil, applying chemicals, planting the seeds or harvesting, the tractor is traveling exactly where it needs to go with NO OVERLAP.

This probably sounds minor, but no overlap actually ends up meaning fewer trips over the field.  When you consider even 6 inches of overlap times every trip back and forth over the field, that’s potentially one or two trips saved if you can minimize the overlap.  That’s the technology farmers are using today.

Saving energy and using fewer fossil fuels is important to farmers.

And THAT’S how Illinois farmers celebrate Green Week.

Lindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

GREEN WEEK: FARMERS PREVENT SOIL EROSION

What does Green Week mean for you?  Yes, your kids will likely bring home several papers on recycling and start hounding you to put the milk jug in the proper tub.  You might recycle a newspaper that you typically wouldn’t or make sure that you only run the water as much as needed.  Otherwise, I’m guessing Green Week will either mean more of the same (if you’re a recycler) or pass without fanfare (if you’re not.)

soil erosion, irrigation, land use, energy decrease, farming, agricultureFor farmers, green week doesn’t even exist.  They celebrate “Green Year” where every single decision they make impacts the land, water, and air around them on a day to day basis.  And when the land, water, or air are impacted, there are detrimental effects both on their families that drink the water and breathe the air, and on their bottom line in the future.

In recent years, farmers have made enormous strides in the area of soil conservation, ensuring that less soil runs off of the field in rainwater and maintaining as much topsoil as possible on the field.

The practice on the farm for years and years was to till the ground often.  Farmers would till the field as soon as they removed the crop, leaving it open to the harsh winter weather and spring rains.  They would till it again before planting a new crop in the spring.  Every time the earth was turned over, particles were loosened and heavy rains would wash soil right into nearby creeks and ponds.  Farmers were literally losing inches of topsoil over a period of years, making sustainable farming impossible.

Fast forward to today.  It is no longer an acceptable practice to till the soil after harvesting a crop.  Farmers leave corn and soybean stalks in the field so that their root systems can hold the soil in place over the winter and early spring months.  Many farmers then “no-till” the following year’s seeds directly into the stalks from the previous year.  With only the planter disrupting the soil to plant the seeds, much more soil is preserved.

corn, corn stalks, tillage, farm, agricultureSome farmers find that their crops fare better when they use a strip-till practice.  This means that the farmer tills only a strip of the ground and plants the seed directly into that strip.  This allows the seed to grow in a clean area without all the stalks from the previous year inhibiting its growth but preserves the soil over the heavy spring rains.

These new practices have enabled farmers to decrease soil loss by 67 percent since 1987.

And THAT’S how Illinois farmers celebrate Green Week.

Lindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

GROUNDHOG DAY, WINTER WEATHER, AND AGRICULTURE

As GroundHog Day is being celebrated today, many people have anticipated over the past few weeks whether “Phil” the groundhog will see his Shadow. Many dread that six extra weeks of winter while others, like me, welcome it. Either way, agriculturalists know that weather, in general, can influence crops in hundreds of different ways, good or bad. Despite what most might think, winter weather is actually a vital part of the growing process, and snow has several benefits besides providing a fun-filled snow day to students or a day off of work. Snow provides much-needed moisture to plants, such as trees, grass, and winter cover crops that must survive the cold season.

What is a cover crop?

illinois, winter, field, farm, agriculture, harvestIn Illinois, it’s typically winter wheat, shown in the picture above, which gets planted between peak production periods of corn and soybeans. This crop typically lays dormant over the winter months and then grows in the early spring season. The cover crop offers farmers another source of income, weed control during the early spring months, along with protecting the soil from wind and water erosion or the washing/blowing away of material from the surface of the soil.

Another major benefit of snow is that it literally creates a blanket for the soil. Soil temperatures actually vary a lot through the course of the year and snow actually is an excellent insulator to keep the soil warmer during the winter months. Typically, for every inch of snow the temperature underneath the snow increases by 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Why is the soil temperature important to farmers?

illinois, farm, winter, snow, cornSoil contains millions of different organisms with millions more still not identified that are beneficial and harmful to plants. Many of these organisms need warmer temperatures, moisture, and several other components to survive and typically dive deeper into the soil where it’s warmer or become dormant during the winter months. The organisms that benefit the plant, such as, earthworms and microorganisms, actually eat organic matter. Organic matter consists of dead animal remains or plant material that can decay over time. When harvesting crops a good portion of the plant is actually left in the field where the plants begin to decompose. When millions of these microorganisms eat organic matter or the leftover plants, they excrete vital nutrients that plants can use such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur. When the soil becomes warm enough, those organisms become active and start breaking down that organic matter in the soil. When we get snow covering the ground for longer periods of time the cold doesn’t penetrate the ground as deep and protects those organisms in the ground. It also means that the soil takes less time to warm up once the winter months have passed enabling farmers to enter the fields sooner in the spring.

So as the landscape begins to turn green over the next couple months, or whether Phil the groundhog actually sees his shadow or not, know that weather actually plays one of the biggest roles in growing crops year round, including the winter months that we get snow.

Eric King
Western Illinois University Agribusiness student