OPINION - Guest column

OPINION | BRAD DOYLE: Improving sustainable soybean stewardship

Farmers and ranchers have long been the unsung environmentalists and stewards of our natural resources. The economic and environmental sustainability of a farming operation depends on such stewardship.

Farmers also bear the financial burden that comes with the job, which makes them gun-shy of changes to climate policy regulating energy and manufacturing sectors, inevitably leading to higher costs.

These costs trickle down to farmers in the form of higher prices for fertilizer, fuels, and production expenses.

Many farmers are already operating on thin margins or a net loss, so asking them to back policies that will hinder them further is not fair nor realistic. They need access to improved programs that incentivize stewardship and reward participants for the total value of their environmental contribution in addition to carbon sequestration such as water quality, healthy soils, biodiversity and others.

From an environmental standpoint, a number of untraditional practices exist to help improve sustainability. Cover crops are one example. Small plot research trials allow us to compare genetics, seeding rates, row spacing, seed blends, and planting dates as well as many other factors in crop and seed production.

We introduced cover crops such as cereal rye, radish, and clover over 10 years ago into our research program to determine what combinations and plant species work best in our flat, slow-draining silt and clay loam soils. We have been increasing the number of comparisons to 120 different combinations to find what fits best in Arkansas.

Cover crop plantings are not simply planting a specific species after harvest. There are many other factors to consider including weed suppression, biomass production, erosion prevention, nutrient credit, ease and timing of termination, winter survival, planting rate and depth, and if it can be flown on by plane or broadcast. Cover crops can serve a dual purpose for attracting and providing nutrition for wildlife like deer and turkey as well as many soil health benefits.

Northeast Arkansas is in the Mississippi River Flyway and attracts thousands of ducks and geese through the winter, sometimes making it a challenge to grow certain cover crops. With the reduction of wheat acres grown in our state, geese will seek out winter green fields as they follow the migration corridor.

Another conservation practice we have implemented is no-till. Our area is historically tilled or heavily cultivated every year, but farmers have the capability to no-till if the opportunity exists. The transition to no-till has many challenges on flat ground, especially when pre-harvest rains soften the soil.

Rutting of fields after these rains makes it hard to prepare and plant cover crops and offer a smooth no-till planting bed for the next spring. Ruts prevent drainage from spring rains that can delay planting. No-till plantings also depend on burndown herbicides to combat hard-to-control weeds such as marestail, curly dock, ryegrass, and spring emerging palmer pigweed. When the opportunity presents itself, cover crops do an excellent job preventing these weeds from emerging and interfering with spring planting of the next crop.

For years, a number of federal programs have been designed to help farmers mitigate risks associated with untraditional efforts. Unfortunately, many are not user-friendly and have developed reputations that cause growers to question their effectiveness and execution.

In theory, cost-sharing and incentive programs are designed to encourage the adoption of conservation practices, but in reality, these payments often don't come to fruition due to a small technicality or miscommunication. In fact, some growers who are already engaging in certain conservation practices have determined these federal programs are not worth it.

A new incentive program is on the horizon to help encourage and enable farmers to adopt sustainability practices. Rural Investment to Protect our Environment (RIPE) is a farmer- led non-profit working to advance national climate policy that invests in voluntary agricultural stewardship practices by providing a reasonable financial return to farmers.

There are many farmers and ranchers who already practice environmental stewardship and should be incentivized to keep up their good work. RIPE is proposing the RIPE100 plan, uniquely designed to ensure that climate policy will not hamper farmer profitability, and acknowledges the larger public contributions farmers provide by rewarding conservation practices' water, soil, and other environmental benefits.

RIPE is different from many other incentive programs. It pays farmers $100/acre, which helps eliminate risk farmers would otherwise be forced to absorbed when navigating untraditional practices. It has easy enrollment compared to some other programs, which can be cumbersome and hard to manage. Finally, it doesn't penalize early adopters or farmers who are not new to the practices.

RIPE100 is a voluntary land stewardship policy that can provide a great benefit to the public through carbon sequestration, improved soil health, cleaner water, water conservation, flood mitigation, pollination, biodiversity and other environmental services. The program's first phase will remove approximately 33 million metric tons of greenhouse gas, reducing agriculture's emissions by 5 percent, equivalent to removing 7 million cars from the road.

Multi-generational family farms now have overcome many challenges through the years and adapted as needed. We know in order to see our children carry on this legacy we have to make these sorts of investments today. This progress can only occur by enabling more farmers' involvement of new practices. A RIPE type of public/private partnership will support that advancement.

Brad Doyle farms soybeans, rice, and wheat in Poinsett County with his wife, son and two brothers-in-laws. The family also owns and operates Eagle Seed Company. Brad and his wife Joyce, a Ph.D. plant breeder, conduct crop research trials on their farm and were recently awarded the Walton Family Foundation Conservation Champion award grant for their research on cover crops. For more information visit www.eagleseed.com/research.html.

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