Conservation Allows Expansion of Family Farm
When Jim Andrew came home from the Army to farm with his father, a big concern was how to expand their family’s century farms near Jefferson, Iowa. Their innovative choice, made three decades ago, has turned Andrew into a conservation leader and the first farmer in the U.S. to qualify for Tier III, the highest performance level under the Conservation Security Program (CSP).
“Instead of bidding against the neighbors to buy more land, we chose to make the ground we had better,” Andrew explains. “Some of it was highly erodible, so that put us into an aggressive system of creating terraces.”
Andrew installed miles of terracing to preserve his fragile acres but found he was still losing soil after big winds and heavy rains. His next step was a decisive move to no-till planting: “We got rid of 18 big tractors and implements and that just about paid for a smaller tractor, a corn planter, a sprayer and a no-till drill.
“One reason we sold our equipment was to burn our bridges, so we couldn’t go back to plowing if things got tough,” he says. “I’ve been no-tilling ever since. I see very little, if any, soil loss, and every year those earthworms seem to do better and better. When we get a five-inch rain, our soil just soaks it up like a sponge.”
Andrew believes his no-till practices were the leading reason he qualified for CSP Tier III. Another reason was his three farm ponds, surrounded by the trees he has planted, fitted out with nesting boxes and stocked with fish.
No-till’s benefits don’t end with erosion, according to Andrew. He has calculated that his hours in the tractor are about a third of what they used to be, reducing energy use, machinery costs and labor. As a result, he handles almost all his fieldwork on his own.
Always an enthusiastic spokesman for agriculture, Andrew has spent the winter speaking to other farmers about conservation practices and the Conservation Security Program.
“It kind of hurts me to drive in the winter and see black snow in the ditches because someone has gone through with tillage and the soil is eroding. I want to say to other farmers, ‘Come on, guys, it’s not that hard.’”
At the national no-till conference, he spoke to 800 other farmers primed to apply for CSP as soon as their watersheds become eligible, but to his contacts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Andrew is pitching concepts that go beyond CSP.
As Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire, bringing erodible land back into production, he has suggested payments to encourage growers to use no-till methods instead of plowing the soil. He also believes there should be technical outreach on conservation methods to urban Americans who build homes on large rural acreage—a concept he calls “CSP lite.”
“CSP is the guinea pig USDA could use to craft a conservation-based farm bill,” he suggests. “Wouldn’t it be great to orient farm payments to conservation so the guy with the highest payments is the best conservationist in the country?”
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