There is no “how-to” book on the right and profitable way to farm. Land cost, equipment, software, fuel and inputs are just a few of the variable costs to consider when managing a farm. All of those expenses add up. In farming, decisions often boil down to keeping the land as productive as possible while still maintaining a sound return on investment (ROI). How can U.S. soybean farmers be good stewards of their land when the cost of farming just keeps going up?

According to the recent USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Farm Expenditures Report, 2017 farm expenses rose 5 percent from 2016 for the average-sized operations.

The report also shared that in 2017, expenses were estimated at $359.8 billion, up from $346.9 billion in 2016. The top expenses for crop farmers were labor, rent and farm services. Combined crop inputs — chemicals, fertilizers and seeds — were $51.8 billion, accounting for 28.2 percent of crop total expenses across the U.S. Total fuel expense was $12 billion. Diesel, the largest sub component, was $7.6 billion, accounting for 63.3 percent of fuel expenses.

The margins are razor thin. According to the USDA Economic Returns to Farming for U.S. Households report, slightly more than half of all U.S. farm households face a loss from their farm business in any given year.

In addition to the financial pressures, growers are faced with the voice of the consumer, wanting farmers to produce food more sustainably. U.S. farmers stand at the crossroads of profit and sustainability – and it’s an intersection rich with opportunity.

Sustainability practices have helped to lower costs on many farms. Here, several farmers share their sustainability stories.

Matt Stutzman — Michigan

We try many different things on our farm to improve our sustainability. We have been using some practices for decades. Some newer methods we are just trying in the last four years.

For example, we have added tile gates to many of our fields. Tile drainage is a drainage system that removes excess water from soil below the surface. We know too much soil moisture has a negative impact on our heavy clay soils – when conditions were wetter than desired, field operations would create soil compaction and yield loss as a result. To achieve proper drainage, most fields are on 30 or 40-foot center pattern tile and mains collect the lateral water and drain at one or two points in each field. With the tile gates, we can hold water back at our main before it’s discharged. Gates can be raised or lowered, depending on the amount of water we want in the field throughout the season.

Using tile gates still allows drainage even during rainy years to remove excess water from fields. It has improved our yield on dry years since we weren’t letting all of our water go. This process also prevents nitrogen and phosphorus loss from extreme weather events and heavy rainfall. Now, our discharge water from mains runs cleaner, which means the nutrients we need are staying in the field and out of rivers and lakes. This change reduces nutrient loss, saves on input costs, and improves our soils.

Ron Moore — Illinois

There are several things we do on my farm that help the environment and our farming costs. During planting season, we use biotechnology with the seeds we choose to plant. The use of biotechnology has increased the production of soybeans and corn through improved plant traits that better utilize water and nutrients. This helps us reduce costly applications during the season.

On our farm, we also use precision ag technology that prescribes the accurate amount and placing of crop protection and nutrient products, so we do not over-apply these expensive inputs. Satellite imagery monitors plant health throughout the growing season to identify areas that need additional inputs. This prevents us from applying nutrients to an entire field when only a few spots need treatment.

Post-season, using no-till practices on my farm allows me to make fewer trips across the field in the combine to grow corn and soybeans. This has significantly reduced the use of diesel fuel on the farm. It also saves the soil from wind and water erosion, thereby keeping the soil and nutrients that we need to grow healthy crops.

Paul Dees — Mississippi

On my farm in the Mississippi Delta, I work to efficiently manage my water use. In the past 10 years, research has shown the aquifer used to supply our irrigation water is depleted.

As someone who wants to continue farming and wants my family to farm in the future, I want to be a good steward of the resources available to us.

I employ several tools and practices to manage our water use. To determine when and where irrigation is needed, I use soil moisture sensors. For my two center pivots with drop nozzles, Pipe Planner helps me determine the most efficient hole sizes to get water to the fields. I also furrow irrigate. I have been doing this for five years.

The weather impacts the frequency of my irrigation. Last year, we were blessed with timely rains, and I irrigated less than I ever have before, but that’s not always the case. Before implementing irrigation technology, farmers would just apply water as they thought it was needed, or on the same schedule, without any empirical data showing the crop actually needed to be watered. This is extremely wasteful and unnecessary for top yields.

New technology lets us track soil moisture levels and length of time to water the plants, controlling the process from our phones. From now on, I plan to always irrigate taking advantage of these new technologies. I want all my crops to get exactly what they need, and I don’t want to spend the money to do extra watering when it’s not necessary. Even if the groundwater supply were infinite, if you are using less water and making the same yields, you are saving money, and it’s good for the environment. It’s a win-win.