Conservation agriculture and organic farming both strive to achieve balance between people and the land, but take different approaches to feeding people without damaging the earth. Many of us know about organic farming methods which avoid artificial pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Less well known is conservation agriculture which emphasizes sustainability of the farming operation and maintaining soil and its humus by minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining a permanent soil cover and utilizing crop rotations to retain soil nutrients. Conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability and is a proven method of sustainable land management that can be used on farms small and large.
I spoke with Jay Yankey who is both the Manager of the Prince William County Soil and Water Conservation District, PWSWCD, and the third generation of his family to farm in Prince William County Virginia. (Before the 1940’s Jay’s family farmed in Rockingham County and today Jay and his brother-in-law grow small grain on land they own in Rockingham.) After graduating from Ferrum College in 2000 with a degree in Agricultural Business and Environmental Science, Jay built his own retail based farming operation based on a conservation agriculture model beginning in 1997. Yankey Farms operates a pick your own berries and sweet corn in the early summer and pumpkin patch in the fall. The berries this summer were amazing.
For the past several years (but not planned for 2013) Jay has also operated two farm stands and a community supported agricultural, CSA, boxes program where “neighbors” could sign up and purchase a weekly box of vegetables during the growing season. These operations have been successful and profitable for Yankey Farms; however, now that Jay is also the Director of the PWSWCD he has had to streamline his farming operation. His attempts to hire an intern to help manage the CSA program were not satisfactory- he needed more time for on-site management to operate the CSA program than he has these days.
Yankey Farms grows about 15-20 acres of produce and 50 acres of small grain based on a model of conservation agriculture, which is an integrated model of lest toxic, cost effective farming, utilizing crop rotation, field borders, cover crops and low till or no-till to reduce erosion. Yankey Farms leaves a permanent cover crop and drills through the upper layers to plant the seeds, always working to minimize erosion. Conservation agriculture uses herbicides (the least toxic) and active manipulation of organic matter in the soil to deal with weed problem. Organic farming requires that farmers till the land, churning up the crop land, pulling up weeds and mixing them into the soil and does not use chemical herbicides.
Many at the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture attribute erosion to the plowing of soil before planting. Disturbing the soil cover, loosening it so it's no longer tightly packed, leaves it more susceptible to being washed away by rain and wind and ultimately finding its way into streams and rivers. No till, reduces sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff and ultimately contamination of water bodies like the Chesapeake Bay. Leaving the soil intact also increases its ability to hold onto carbon dioxide, which means less carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Instead of plowing up the ground to plant the crops, Yankey Farms uses a machine that punches the seeds or plant into the ground. No till farming can reduce erosion up to 90%. No till farming also reduces reliance on fertilizers.
Yankey Farms has about 5 acres of irrigation ponds used in a sustainable irrigation model. These ponds are filled by rainfall and are used to ensure that the crops get at least one and a half inches of rain a week. The vegetable crops and berries are irrigated by a drip irrigation tape that is replaced every couple of seasons and the small grain crops are irrigated by the less efficient overhead irrigation. Though it varies from year to year depending on weather, the vegetable crops required 15,000 gallons per acre per week and the grains 40,000 gallons per acre per week. During this past summer at the low point during the crop drought the irrigation ponds water level was down about 3 feet, but the rainfall of late has refilled them.
Conservation agriculture and organic farming both strive to achieve balance between people and the land so that the land can continue to feed people without damaging the earth. Conservation agriculture emphasizes sustainability of the farming operation and maintaining soil by minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining a permanent soil cover and utilizing crop rotations to retain soil nutrients. Conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability and is a proven method of sustainable land management.
The ten year Iowa State Marsden Farm study found that low chemical use combined with high-diversity crop rotations increased crop yield over conventional practices and though low value crops were utilized in the rotation the farm produced similar profits over the longer run. According to the study done at the Iowa State University demonstration farm conservation agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture,and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It's productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace. These practices are on the ground, so to speak in Prince William county and succeeding here. Unfortunately current U.S. agricultural policy manifest in the Farm Bill favors industrial food production.