Where our food comes from – farming is everyone’s business
If you live in a bustling urban area like Chicago, you can easily go weeks, months or possibly even years without seeing a farm – let alone step foot on one. Illinois is more than 80% farmland with nearly 73,000 farms. Illinois ranks ninth on a national scale for total number of farms. However, even with our relatively close proximity, many of us are still disconnected from where our food comes from. We frequently purchase food at restaurants, grocery stores or even order online, and our disconnection grows.
But, it is important to know where our food comes from. Our health and the environment are both greatly impacted by the food system in our state, country and across the world. As a dietitian, I can tell you that food is our body’s nourishment and only energy source. Aside from the air we breathe and water we drink, it is the one thing we all consume on a daily basis that will have a direct impact on our health. And, it’s not just the food itself that’s important. It’s the soil, water and the environmental impact of producing our food that is important to understand.
I recently visited a family farm in Esmond, Illinois, about 80 miles west of downtown Chicago, to see firsthand what Illinois farmers are doing to promote environmental sustainability and how they ensure the food they are producing is safe and nutritious. I was impressed to learn that soil health and environmental sustainability are top of mind. It completely makes sense, as farmers rely on their soil to grow crops and provide for their families. Without healthy soil and the ability to grow and harvest food, their farm will not survive. They are deeply connected to their land and surrounding communities and place a strong value on the environment around them.
The farm I visited was family owned, like 96% of farms in this country. Paul and his family grow field corn, sweet corn, soybeans and green peas. Paul uses fertilizers and pesticides to nourish and protect his crops, respectively. He explained the strict guidelines for the application of these farm chemicals and the frequency in which they are used. As a self-employed small business, the last thing Paul wants to do is overspray these farm chemicals, which wastes money or could potentially harm the soil. His soil appeared healthy and nutrient rich, as evidenced by the crop yields, rich color and many worms observed living there.
I learned the fertilizers, and the nitrogen in them, aren’t harming the farmland where they are carefully applied to areas that need it. The problem occurs when it rains and the rainwater drains from the farm into surrounding rivers. The rain takes the nitrogen with it. Coupled with naturally occurring nitrates, that’s where nitrogen can build up to unsafe levels and have a negative environmental impact. We want to keep the fertilizers on the farm to help grow the crops with minimal applications and prevent them from running off into rivers, lakes or streams. Luckily, farmers are learning ways to do just that.
Bare soil, when exposed to the rain and elements, will produce the most erosion and water runoff.
Farmers can help prevent erosion and water runoff by implementing the following practices:
- Residue cover is essentially leaving stalk tissue of previously harvested crops on top of the soil. This surface cover helps maintain the organic matter and reduce runoff.
- No-till means just that – no tilling or disturbing the soil with a chisel plow, field cultivator or plow. Instead of turning the soil over two or three times a year, farmers avoid tilling altogether.
- Lastly, one of the most effective ways to reduce runoff is to plant cover crops or perennial vegetation. This is essentially planting another type of crop, like rye, in the soil. This vegetation will help absorb water and add important nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
If these are effective ways to reduce water runoff, then why isn’t everyone doing them? Well, they all require additional labor, expense and can potentially impact crop yields. Farmers and farm organizations have been promoting these practices to each other as positive steps, and provisions in the 2019 Farm Bill can offer more support.
We, the end consumers and community members of local farmers, need to support Illinois farmers in being good stewards of our environment. From influencing public policies to supporting programs that make farm conservation practices economically feasible, we can educate ourselves and talk to farmers about how we can support them. Farming and where our food comes from is all of our business.