Sustainable Agriculture is a Journey, Not a Destination

Technologies like Probe Schedule® irrigation management software, available through Wilbur-Ellis, monitor soils every day for moisture and temperature to manage irrigation water and help maximize nutrient use efficiency.

Five steps toward farm sustainability

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Technologies like Probe Schedule® irrigation management software, available through Wilbur-Ellis, monitor soils every day for moisture and temperature to manage irrigation water and help maximize nutrient use efficiency.

Not everyone in agriculture shares the same definitions of sustainable or regenerative agriculture. But most will agree these efforts include environmental, economic and social practices to ensure we have—and will continue to have—the water, materials and resources needed to protect human health and the environment for generations to come.

Creating long-term sustainability within a farm operation can seem overwhelming. Yet the benefits of increased yields, decreased labor costs and increased return on investment make it a worthwhile pursuit. As with any large task, developing a plan with manageable components can be the best way to get started.

A diverse species of plants within a farm operation will provide an attractive home for beneficial insects and organisms to help manage crop pests and lure pollinators to fields.

Gina Colfer, who serves as a certified crop adviser and pest control adviser for Wilbur-Ellis Agribusiness, offers five steps growers can take to implement a sustainability program that benefits people, the planet and profitability. She reminds growers to be patient and to remember that sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

“Because sustainable agriculture is comprised of practices that evolve as the environment and climate also change, it’s important for growers to remain flexible—and to find the strategies that work for their own goals and budget,” Colfer said.

Growers seeking more information on how to implement the sustainability practices noted below can contact their local Wilbur-Ellis representative.

1. Manage water efficiently
Proper irrigation is critical for growers to maximize their crop production and utilize water efficiently. With severe water shortages in the West and other areas across the United States, Colfer recommends making water preservation and management a key priority.

"A good place to start is by increasing water-holding capacity within the soil by increasing organic matter. By increasing OM by 1%, the soil can hold an additional 20,000 gallon more water per acre, on average,” Colfer noted.

Growers should also know the distribution uniformity in their irrigation system to gauge the system's efficiency. Fix leaky valves and evaluate and change out gaskets or couplers regularly if they are ill-fitting and leaking.

Following severe heat waves, like the recent one in the Western U.S., the best method is to irrigate more frequently with a shorter duration run time. Soil has a limited capacity to store water in the root zone and excessive irrigations can worsen soilborne diseases and increase nitrate leaching and runoff.

Technologies like Probe Schedule, available through Wilbur-Ellis, monitor soils every day for moisture and temperature to manage irrigation water and help maximize nutrient use efficiency.

To deliver the most nitrogen possible into the soil, choose cover crops that grow to three- to four-foot tall. Knock the cover crop down prior to flowering when it still has adequate nitrogen in the leaf tissue. This will deliver the most nitrogen possible into the soil along with additional biomass that will help sequester carbon to feed beneficial soil microbes.
2. Add organic matter

Plant and harvest cover crops at the right stage to create optimal levels of residue biomass for the situation.

“Grow a nice three- to four-foot-tall cover crop that will have adequate nitrogen in the leaf tissue and knock it down after flower but prior to seed set. This will help deliver the most nitrogen and other nutrients possible into the soil along with optimal biomass that will sequester carbon in the soil and feed beneficial soil microbes,” Colfer advised.

Adding carbon-based fertilizers, biologicals and biostimulants such as composts, humic acids, PGPR’s and seaweeds can also contribute to building healthy organic matter that supports beneficial microbe growth. Microbes need food, water and air to survive and thrive.

Utilizing technologies like SoilOptix, which perform soil scans and analysis to generate data for nutrient applications, helps to ensure fertilizer applications are efficient.

3. Reduce tillage
Several sustainability goals can also be achieved by changing tillage practices throughout an operation.

"Look for ways to reduce time in the field with the tractor,” Colfer noted. “Identify where you can eliminate passes to lessen soil disturbance and reduce CO2 emissions, reduce compaction as well as save fuel and operator costs.” Every time you put a tractor in the field, estimate $40-70/acre, depending on the operation.

In some operations such as orchards, farmers are adding compost to help prevent weed germination. Ensure the compost is from a trusted source where there are no weed seeds, and it is completely composted.

"A thick layer of compost applied as mulch to the top of berms can suppress weed growth, and nutrients and other benefits can move into in the soil with each irrigation as an extra benefit," she explained.

Also, if growing a cover crop, mowing and throwing the biomass onto the berms can add a covering that reduces evapotranspiration and inhibits weed germination.

4. Establish habitat biodiversity
A diverse floral species of insectary plants within a farm operation will provide an attractive home and food source for beneficial insects and pollinators. Because most adult predatory insects and parasitic wasps feed on pollen and nectar, having good floral diversity is best for the health of beneficials and pollinators. Establishing these insectary plants ensures that the predator and wasp offspring, have the health and appetite, after hatching their eggs, to go out and consume as many pests as possible.

A variety of plantings can be done in all types of operations, including corn and soybean fields. "Strips can be added within the rows or can be planted around wells and point rows or in other non-crop areas with access to water,” Colfer explained. Remember, these habitats are still crops that need to be managed.

Field agronomists can help guide decision-making to boost biodiversity. For example, integrated pest management (IPM) is a strong component of sustainability that relies on field scouting and incorporating many factors into making pest management recommendations.

5. Incorporate natural energy sources
Reducing energy use and consumption is another step toward farm sustainability. "Going forward, growers should look at incorporating more natural resources as energy sources on the farm. Some options include higher efficiency tractors and Variable Rate Wells run with electricity powered by wind or solar.”

As growers implement new sustainability measures, they need to document all changes. Colfer also believes they need industry support to make their efforts financially feasible. The consumer needs to know what the grower is doing and why their product may cost more at retail. If we are to be sustainable, everyone needs to thrive, including the grower. Without the farmer, we have no food.

Growers can adapt these practices in partnership with their local Wilbur-Ellis representatives. Learn more at