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ARTICLE: Conservation for the Future of the Family Farm

The following is an excerpt of an article on the National Geographic website profiling modern family farmers who practice conservation techniques to help the environment and future generations. 

On the rolling hills of western Iowa, farmer Kevin Ross carries on a tradition six generations old. He works the land where his ancestors labored, working it in a way that will both provide for his family and be ready for the time when his children might take up the family business. They already seem bred to the notion. On a recent morning, his two oldest, age seven and four, were actively helping sort cattle. “They’re far more useful on the farm than I was at that age,” says Ross, with both pride and modesty.

Nine out of ten U.S. corn farms are family owned. And since the family farm remains a big part of American rural life, committing to protecting the environment is a no-brainer. In corn country, it means preserving the land for a better future. Farmers work long, hard hours. They stay on the farm, or return to it, not because they have to, but because they love it. It’s in their blood. They understand that they belong to a tradition that did not start with them and will not end with them. Ross is no exception. Today, he is focused on long-term thinking – farming sustainably both to help his business prosper now and to care for the land in the long term.

Conservation and low-impact farming keep the land healthy for future generations. “God willing I’ve got another 20-plus crop seasons in me,” he says, “so if that’s the case, then I’ve got some time to improve my land, not just for me, for the next generation as well.”

Ross started farming when he was 19 years old, and he realized fairly early that to stay in the game he had to think down the road to preserve his land and protect the health of his soil. His commitment is visible in his fields.

One conservation practice in place for some time in hilly western Iowa is contour farming. “We try to not have rows go straight up and down the hills, we have headlands and farm with the contours of the ground,” Ross explains, “otherwise you’d have drainage and water issues. Basically you’re using your row to act as a small dam when you have a big rain, terracing has a similar effect, but on a larger scale. These tools have been effective for many years around here.”

Ross also farms almost exclusively on a no-till basis. “We don’t go out there on every acre with tillage equipment to tear up and bury our corn stalks or soybean stubble like we once did,” he says. “There are times when you just have to till—whether it’s a bad weed patch or cattle trails from the winter cornstalk grazing that you need to smooth up. But we’re almost 100 percent no-till. Newer tools today make it possible to still achieve the good seed to soil contact that is needed. It works well with our terrain and saves fuel by preventing extra trips across our fields.”

To read the rest of the article, please read, "Conservation for the Future of the Family Farm."