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Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: What I’ve Learned About Protecting the Privilege of Farming

Tom Geake and his father, John, farm about 1,100 acres of corn and soybean near Wall Lake, Iowa and finish 15,000 hogs yearly.

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I grew up on a farm, studied agriculture in college and am the beneficiary of the wisdom handed down by the previous four generations of my family who farmed our area. Still, I keep discovering new ways to help keep our land productive for current crops and protected for future generations.

I come from a strong conservation background.  My grandfather already implemented soil saving practices like grassed waterways, terraces, and no-till before I was born.

We have been mindful of soil erosion for several decades, but we didn’t think very much about water conservation until a few years back when we saw algal blooms in our farm pond. This prompted us to make several changes. For instance, along with soybeans and corn, we raise hogs, so we’ve found a way to recycle the waste. We now inject manure below the surface of the soil to fertilize the fields and prevent the nitrogen-rich product from washing down the hills. And we test nutrient levels in the manure we use and in the tissue of the plants we grow. We don’t want to use more nitrogen or phosphorous than necessary.

We have created about 42 acres of buffer strips around our pond and creeks. We miss out on about 4,000 bushels of crops by not planting those areas. Yes, we might have made more money that way, but by keeping soil and nutrients out of our water supplies, we positively impact wildlife and downstream water users.  We understand that our farming methods can affect many other residents.

As a fifth-generation farmer, I want to ensure that I leave our water and land in great condition so future generations continue to feel honored to farm here.

Farming the land is a privilege. It’s not a right. We want our next generations to enjoy that privilege. We want to continue to feed the world. However, we never want to hurt the land; we want to build productivity. Here in Sac County, we’ve been fortunate to have some helpful partners, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – a part of USDA. Their programs have provided guidance and cost sharing for some of the measures we take to protect soil and water. Since farming is always evolving, so is conservation.  We are starting to use adaptive nitrogen management and nitrogen stabilizers that keep fertilizer from attaching to the water. Along with other farmers, we are starting to use rye as a cover crop during the cold months. It protects against wind, rain and snow-related erosion. It’s nice to see the fields covered during times they might otherwise be bare and watch local wildlife snack on the plants. The rye draws up any excess nitrogen, stabilizes the soil and then turns into natural fertilizer itself when left in fields to decay.  It acts similarly to the way the native prairies did by recycling nutrients and kicking soil microbe activity into high gear to build healthy soil.

These techniques have allowed us to increase our use of no-till methods of planting, which is good for several reasons, including increasing the organic matter in the soil. That allows us to use less fertilizer while still raising great crops.

As businesspeople, we applaud that. As farmers, we think it’s great to see our ground living nearly all year long and know we’re helping to preserve the privilege of farming.