Showcasing U.S. Soy’s Sustainability

Pascal Kuipers

Pascal Kuipers

Schuttelaar & Partners

European journalists visit Illinois and Iowa soybean farms to see sustainable practices in action

Europeans often hear about U.S. soybean farmers’ commitment to providing a sustainable, plentiful supply of soybeans for international end users. Last fall, a group of European media had the unique opportunity to visit U.S. farm fields, talk to U.S. soybean farmers and see these sustainable practices for themselves.

More than half of all soybeans grown in the United States are exported overseas, and the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) works around the globe to support international buyers of U.S. Soy and connect them with the U.S. farmers who grow it.

In 2017, USSEC hosted eleven European journalists and led a tour that took them to soybean farms across Iowa and Illinois. The journalists traveled from Poland, Germany, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland to see for themselves how U.S. soybean farmers approach conservation farming.

In keeping with a “show, don’t tell” outlook, four U.S. soybean farmers opened their farm gates to the group, demonstrating practices like crop rotation, water management, no tillage/reduced tillage, cover crops, grass strips and much more.

Below, see what these four U.S. soybean farmers shared about their conservation practices with the European journalists and representatives from Iowa Soybean Association and Illinois Soybean Association who visited their farms.

Roy Bardole and son Tim Bardole – Rippey, Iowa

About our farm: This farm has been a family farm since 1901. We farm 2,000 acres and we’re always focused on improving our operation.

About our conservation practices: We have been no-till since 1993. For corn, which doesn’t do well with no till, we do strip till. This means we loosen the soil in a strip, in which we plant corn seeds. The soil in between the strips is not tilled. Soy can be combined with no tillage, which does marvelous things to the soil. It increases the amount of organic matter and reduced nutrient run-off via waterways. We also plant cover crops – mostly oats, but we also like turnips.

Many farmers plant cover crops primarily to prevent erosion. Since our land is flat, we don’t have that issue, but we plant cover crops because they take up leftover nutrients, which is good for the soil. We don’t till and we apply herbicides and pesticides as little as possible. Genetically-enhanced seeds are important enablers and we see their development as an important step forward in sustainable farming.

How we define sustainability: There are many definitions of sustainability. In our view, it’s all about passing down the farm to the next generation in even better condition than it is today. We depend on the farm to make our living, and we can only do this by seeking continuous improvement. Farming better than the way your ancestors did it – that’s sustainable farming.

John Heisdorffer – Keota, Iowa

About our farm: This is a 1,000-acre farm on which we grow soybeans and corn on a 50/50 basis. These two crops are rotated each year. In addition to farming, we contract-feed 4,500 pigs that are rotated 2.5 times a year.

About our conservation practices: The combination of row crops and livestock allows us to be very sustainable. We inject manure from the pigs into the fields, which gives us all the nitrogen we need to grow the crops. Before the introduction of genetically-engineered (GE) seeds, insects were a problem. Thanks to GE, we no longer have to spray insecticides. For weeds, our spraying is reduced to just once or twice a year – we spray only when and where we need to. We know cover crops are becoming more popular, but for our farm, we haven’t yet found the right management. Our soybeans are 100 percent no-till. We farm on compact soils, so sometimes light tillage is needed to make the soil dry enough to plant. We also build terraces and watersheds to control the water on our land.

John Longley and daughter, Kate Danner – Aledo, Illinois

About our farm: This farm has been in our family for 128 years. We grow soybeans and corn in a 50/50 split. All our crops are produced for export as feed and ethanol.

About our conservation practices: We do filter strips near waterways. We also use our wetlands and duck ponds to create biodiversity. This farm has been no-till since the 1980s. We plant genetically-engineered (GE) seeds. The state of Illinois is the largest supplier of non-GE crops in the U.S., so farmers have lots of options. If the market demands, we can deliver!

Thanks to GE beans, we can do no-tillage. They also provide us with a less labor-intensive approach to weed management. But we did manage before these GE seeds became available. Our soil contains 3 percent to 4 percent organic matter; all crop residues stay in the field. We have rich soils and we don’t need manure to keep the soil going – this is a result of no-till. Illinois, Iowa and Indiana have some of the world’s richest soils.

Doug Harford and son, Chris Harford – Mazon, Illinois

About our farm: When we started farming this 1,500-acre operation back in 1972, it was still full tillage. In 1983 we were pioneers in no tillage and, since then, we’ve built deep expertise in this conservation farming practice. We can see the long-term effect of no tillage on our soil.

Background on sustainability in our area: Before farming took off in our region, soils contained 11 percent organic matter. A lot was lost due to tillage. In the 1950s and 1960s, farmers were mining the soils. During these decades, fertilizers were invented and this was considered a one-size-fits-all solution.

About our conservation practices: Why do we need fertilizer in the first place? We minimize its use because, thanks to no till, there are enough nutrients in our soil. Plants are mostly made of carbon, so that is essential in our nutrient management plan. In 1972, when we still no tilled, our soil contained 3.5 percent carbon. Today, it’s well over 7 percent. This is the result of no till.

It takes a lot of management not to no till. We allow time to plan things and we need tile for drainage. But it pays off. No till retains nutrients and water in the soil and it improves the soil structure – we don’t need tillage against compaction. Also, we don’t need tillage to dry up the soil before planting. This is important for new farmers to understand. In this part of Illinois, more than half of the farmers have adopted no-till practices. This is a major and very positive change in agriculture!