This article was submitted by Laurel Mann from Ceres Solutions.
A farmer, a conservation agent and an ag retail manager walk into a watershed meeting…
Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?
Well, it’s no joke, and that scenario is playing itself out regularly with great success right here in the Big Pine Watershed. Why? Because our local ag community knows what most of our nation has not yet figured out… it doesn’t take an ill-informed celebrity blog or unflattering YouTube scold to create positive change in agriculture. It only takes a farmer.
Common Sense Collaboration
Finding a balance between working area farm land and protecting that same soil… and the natural resources around it… is vital to producer success. For farmers in Indiana’s Big Pine Watershed, finding balance means using new tools and strategies to introduce crop nutrients more efficiently.
For the last 24 months, local farmers, Ceres Solutions, Land O’Lakes, Inc., the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), The Nature Conservancy, and local Soil and Water conservationists among others, have teamed up to coordinate a multi-year RCPP (Regional Conservation Partnership Program) that brings new federal conservation dollars to our community through the US Farm Bill. Long-term, these collaborative efforts will help protect the biological community, the land’s productivity and the vitality of thousands of acres within the Watershed.
The Why Behind the How
For those who are not involved in agriculture, Ceres Solutions is a farmer-owned cooperative based in Crawfordsville, Indiana, that provides seed, nutrients, supplies, technology, education and more to help local farmers achieve their production goals. For decades, the Ceres Solutions staff has found success by partnering with local farmers for the long term. Part of that strategy naturally means prioritizing protection of the land and natural resources for the benefit of future generations.
When describing Ceres programs, one of the most intriguing questions local Ceres Solutions Agronomist Betsy Bower hears is this: “Why?”
“I admit, I am sometimes taken aback by the question as to why a local retailer is so invested and so committed,” Betsy laughs. “We have been engaged in these practices my entire career… long before sustainability was a trending topic. Protection of the soil, maximizing potential and helping farmers achieve production goals is just what we do. It’s right to do.”
Plus, she adds, “Good stewardship is actually good business.”
By collaborating with partners and farmers, Ceres Solutions helps local farmers do what they do best: produce a crop and protect the vital ecosystem that makes it possible. The Co-op’s key initiatives are to maximize efficiency, reduce waste, enhance profitability, increase resiliency of fields, and minimize environmental impact for today and for generations to come.
Commitment: “Just the right thing to do.”
The fact that farmers are self-motivated to tackle conservation challenges will not surprise other farmers. But it does surprise less informed activists and consumer groups who believe the answer lies in controlling all aspects of agriculture through burdensome regulation. Not necessary, assures the Ceres Solutions team. Farmers can rise and solve this challenge just fine, thank you.
Results: It Works
You don’t have to look far to see proof within the conservation agronomy landscape. In the rural Northeastern Indiana community of Flowers Creek, a combination of farmer-led tactics including conservation tillage, 22,000+ acres of cover crops, buffers, and aggressive habitat management practices helped restore vitality and biological community within the watershed. Recovery rates were so significant that the data prompted the state to propose removal of Flowers Creek from its impaired waters list in 2018.
Likewise, the Bull Run/West Creek watershed in Lake County is part of the Kankakee River Basin. Data had shown failing areas in the watershed, and local voluntary farmer actions between 1997 and 2004 helped turn that trend around. IDEM used conservation funds to implement conservation tillage, no till and other tactics to improve water quality scores. Again, based on results, this 25-mile watershed area has been proposed for removal from the state’s list of impaired or failing communities.
Part of the appeal of aggressively promoting conservation agronomy practices is the simplicity. These farmer-led and retailer-led initiatives are rooted in a simple principle: take care of the land that takes care of you.
“At Ceres, we think differently,” notes Ceres Solutions’ Jim Sprowl. “As partners to the farmer, we are as interested in what is happening below the soil as what is happening above it. Together, we are on the right path. We build and prove the case that good stewardship is actually good business.”
Making Headway… and Headlines
While farmers in the Big Pine Watershed still have work to do, it is certainly rewarding to join like-minded communities such as Bull Run and Flowers Creek, who had the wisdom and foresight to take action. In this area, thousands of new acres of cover crops and nutrient management plans will help greatly reduce the amount of nutrients that leave farm fields and end up in our waterways.
Bower, a vocal sustainability champion for decades, summed up her customers’ sentiments with her signature directness and passion… the same passion farmers see her bring to her work every day. “As a farmer, you know the challenge is not in doing the right thing… but in more intentionally documenting, managing and leveraging your decision. You already watch your inputs. You follow stewardship principles. Let’s use new funding options, new tools and technology to optimize output per unit of input on every acre,” she said. “Let’s continuously improve that balance between productivity, profit and preservation. That’s the conservation agronomy story… your story.”
For farmers in the Big Pine Watershed, the story is a compelling one.