Farm Progress in Sustainability: What you need to know from the 2015 Farm Progress Show

By: Woody Woodruff

The 2015 Farm Progress Show is a farmer’s chance to see all the new advancements in farming equipment and technology all in one place. The agricultural spectators come from all over the world to see which innovations are going to propel them into the future. The show is a melting pot of the different types of agricultural companies that supply the needed inputs for a farmer’s future success.  Groups of farmers from other countries led by a language translator made up a fair percentage of the spectators. Compared to U.S. farmers, a large percentage of these translator-led farmers stopped out the Illinois Stewardship Alliance booth to talk about the Alliance’s mission and how we are achieving it. I felt that the Alliance’s booth, with its diverse message of agricultural sustainability, conservation of our Illinois natural resources, and local food production with better market opportunities for local farmers, was something that foreigners found refreshing to see at the Decatur Farm Progress Show. I was excited to see that healthy systems of local community supported agricultural markets that are based on farming stewardship is a cultural movement that is being sought-out and promoted worldwide.

“I was excited to see that healthy systems of local community supported agricultural markets that are based on farming stewardship is a cultural movement that is being sought-out and promoted worldwide.”

Watching the translators discuss the mission of Illinois Stewardship Alliance with the different delegations of farmers got me thinking about what is going to be the driving force in this renewed push toward sustaining land, water, and food resources through agricultural stewardship here in the mid-west. It’s ironic that the real driving force for most farmers today was the very essence of the Farm Progress Show: the growing cost of progress in agriculture. This show epitomizes the growing cost that is associated with the global production of commodity supported crops in which seed dealers can charge $400/bag for the seed while farmers can make only about $4 for the grain that is harvested from it, farm equipment can reach a price tag of up to $1,000,000 per combine to harvest that $4 grain, the quantity and sources of good nutrients are in short supply, chemical suppliers sell sprays that no longer work, and grain storage and transportation requires higher and higher energy inputs. It is ever so obvious why agricultural sustainability is a growing movement. A higher focus on yield requires a higher level of input. Some of the resources for these inputs are starting to dwindle. If you are farming in any country besides Morocco your source for quality phosphorus fertilizer is gone. Most of our other fertilizers are from a dwindling supply of petroleum based sources as well. Our present cropping system requires an extremely high level of inputs that will only increase in cost as their effect or availability deceases. The threats to the environment are becoming clearer. We can no longer take for granted our dwindling and degraded natural resources that are so vital in an ever increasing demand for food production.

“Our present cropping system requires an extremely high level of inputs that will only increase in cost as their effect or availability deceases.”

Amidst all of the expensive machinery, seed and pesticide dealers, there was one tent whose main concern was not technological progress, but progress in agricultural sustainability. That tent housed a wide variety of programs, information, and strategies to make farming operations profitable as well as sustainable. This tent represented diversity, which is the key principle in sustainability.  This tent, which was different from the rest, was the Conservation Partners Tent.  This tent combined 14 different partnerships that work together in promoting agricultural sustainability. Illinois Stewardship Alliance was proud to be one of those partnering this year to bring about advancements in soil health, water quality protection, wildlife habitat, beginning farmer opportunities, and support to the growing number of women landowners.

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Each day of the Farm Progress Show at the Conservation Partners tent, three separate panels of experienced farmers and landowners talked to the crowds of interested farmers about their success in using cover crops, or managing habitat for wildlife, or how to succeed as a beginning farmer, or the support and information you will need as an engaged woman landowner. The working knowledge that came from these diverse four and five member panels was priceless. From the size of the crowds in attendance at each panel discussion and the number of questions being asked the panelist, this source of peer transfer in information is greatly needed.  Farmers also found other sources of information in the Conservation Partners Tent and could talk to specialists ranging from bee keepers to wildlife biologists. The generational passing on of the care for the family farm has become endangered through a system of increasing prices and diminishing returns. What is the real potential for our next generation to care for our land if the risk is too high and the rewards are taken away from the local communities? I was proud to be part of the Conservation Partner’s Tent, where farmers could find progress in sustainability…not in competition with technology, but as a complement to it. If farmers want to succeed in farming for years to come, we must find safer ways of farming that protect our farm families and that work for everyone in sustaining our local communities.

“The generational passing on of the care for the family farm has become endangered through a system of increasing prices and diminishing returns. What is the real potential for our next generation to care for our land if the risk is too high and the rewards are taken away from the local communities?”