Sustainable agriculture: Saving farms, saving the planet

Farmers can increase crop productivity while curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Gary Lantz, of Cannon Hill Farm in Mount Jackson, said seed heads like the one he is holding grow big because of the care he takes to use organic material to keep his soil healthy. Jake Zuckerman/Daily
Two grass-fed cows chew grass, grown in premium soil, that organic farmer Gary Lantz says will keep the cows healthy and hefty. Jake Zuckerman/Daily

MOUNT JACKSON – As the world works on tackling climate change and watches its carbon emissions more carefully, sustainable agriculture is gaining traction as farmers are finding ways to increase productivity while decreasing their carbon footprints.

Gary Lantz runs Cannon Hill Farm in Mount Jackson, an organic farm, as certified by the Global Organic Alliance. Lantz’s farm doesn’t use synthetic herbicides or pesticides, so he works to put all his natural resources to use to keep his crop hay and beef yields up.

Some of his practices include using geotech lining and gravel in his high traffic areas to keep tractors from chewing up the land, covering his livestock feed area to prevent runoff from the animals’ waste before using it as manure, and fencing off his streams so the cows can’t use them for defecation.

Despite his zero-waste philosophy, Lantz is the first to admit he doesn’t fit the organic stereotype.

“I’m not a treehugger,” he said. “I believe in the Bible, and that tells us all to be good stewards of the land. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

He said his systems produce some of the healthiest soil, which starts a positive feedback loop leading to healthier grass, healthier cows and heftier crops. He said his veterinary bill from 2015 topped off at $19.

Lantz isn’t alone in his sustainable-agriculture philosophy. Zachary Easton is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s department of biological engineering and, in 2014, co-authored “Mitigation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Agriculture” with the cooperative. Today, he maintains sustainable agriculture can help not only the environment but farmers’ businesses themselves.

“I was trying to let producers know how they could increase their rural productivity while still reducing their emissions and greenhouse gasses from their farms,” Easton said of the paper.

Although there is still apathy among some farmers in regard to the effects of climate change, Easton said climate change has a disproportionate negative effect on agriculture and will end up costing the U.S. production system considerably if it continues.

Before he established his organic farm over the last 15 years, Lantz said there was neighborhood chatter about his methods.

“People saw the new guy on the block practicing hippie farming, and asked when I was going to buy a Volkswagen, grow out my hair and start wearing sandals,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, they’ve grown impressed. Now they buy my hay.”

Offering different ideas for farmers looking to cut down on their footprint, Easton said one of the easiest methods that will also increase crop productivity is building up soil organic matter, which increases soil moisture and nutrient retention while improving soil structure – not too different from what Lantz does, using his manure as fertilizer. Farmers can also do this by reducing or eliminating tillage in their agriculture, which prevents oxidation of the soil organic matter.

Along with increasing crop productivity, the organic matter also acts as a carbon sink, which works as a storage facility for carbon, instead of keeping it in the air where it traps heat in the atmosphere.

Despite common knowledge, carbon dioxide is not the most harmful agent that contributes to climate change. According to study data, methane has 21 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide has 310 times the potential.

To mitigate the effects of nitrous oxide while increasing efficiency, farmers can use precision agriculture techniques to limit fertilizer use. By taking care not to over fertilize, farmers can save money on input costs while preventing runoff and leaching, which damage water quality along with adding to climate change.

Another method of reducing a farm’s net carbon emissions while increasing crop yields is planting trees on the land. Not only do trees act as carbon sinks, but they strengthen soil, offer renewable energy for a heat source, reduce wind stress on buildings and provide shade for livestock.

While some of these practices will require farmers to fork over time, money and effort up front, Easton said the savings will recover the costs over a few years. Likewise, he said there are several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that will share the costs of energy saving with farmers.

Earlier this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a $72.3 million investment to boot carbon storage in healthy soils. This follows the USDA’s resuming of a program paying farmers for turning in their biomass for fuel conversion.

To Lantz, organic farming simply makes more sense. Instead of destroying the land he works on, he uses its energy to maintain itself and improve the soil, not destroy it.

“That’s why we went organic,” he said. “We looked at industrial farming and thought, there’s got to be a better way.”

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com

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