Balancing Stewardship and Profitability

For as long as farming has existed, those who have worked the land have utilized it to the best of their ability. The concept of sustainability is nothing new to many farmers. However, modern technology and research reveals innovative ways to preserve the viability of land and farming resources for generations to come. 

Sustainable farms are able to maintain productivity and usefulness for an indefinite period of time. This includes incorporating practices that minimize the depletion of natural resources, limit the use of external inputs and maximize the utilization of natural and renewable inputs. 

Sustainable farming methods are designed to ensure farms flourish for many years into the future. “If you have this outlook of sustainability with profitability and not just profitability, the next generation is going to have the opportunity to inherit the farm in a lot better condition,” Nathan Bilke, district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said.

There are management decisions farmers can make that will allow them to have more of a sustainable operation and also make more money over time. “Sustainability can incrementally increase profitability,” Bilke stated. 

 In a beef cattle operation, one the easiest ways to increase profitability is to reduce input costs. “It may be that you are way overstocked, so your grass is not sustainable to keep up with your herd,” Bilke said. “Look at reducing your stock density, or maybe you need to look at adding more grass or adding more fence (to create paddocks) to make it more sustainable.” 

Additionally, farms can run in a more sustainable manner by increasing soil fertility, protecting soil from erosion and degradation, conserving water and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. In some agricultural operations this may look like planting cover crops, adding compost, implementing rotational grazing or incorporating a multi-species grazing program.

Sustainability may also include insulating farm buildings or facilities. Over time this saves on energy consumption and costs. “You are trying to build those resources,” Bilke added. “Whether it is a soil resource or a financial resource or different things like that.”

Financial considerations can be a barrier for many farmers if the sustainable agriculture practice is going to cost them money. The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and other agencies offer cost share programs to assist farmers interested in implementing conservation and sustainable farming methods. The goal of some of these programs is to help farmers with the costs so that they can see the long-term benefits of sustainable farming. 

“That is the hope of these programs, that it will take the risk away,” Bilke explained. 

The utilization of sustainable farming practices can also add value to farmland. “There is a big difference on cost per acre, if you are going to buy something that has been taken care of,” Bilke said. 

For example, crop fields with terraces built in, cover crops planted through the years, and crops rotated from season to season, would sell for more money compared to a property that has been basically mined and farmed without sustainable practices. “That farm might be $2,500 an acre when the one that has been farmed properly goes for $8,000 an acre,” Bilke explained. 

The development of new technologies and greater understanding of sustainable practices opens the doors for farmers to find additional ways to bring profitability and sustainability to their operations. “Whether it is soils, grass, animals, livestock or financially, as a business if you have family members who want to take it over, don’t you want to leave it in a better shape than you received it?” Bilke asked. 

Bilke added sustainability is a long-term commitment and investment. At times, it pushes farmers to branch out past the farming practices of the generations that have gone before them. But in the end, the adoption of many of these methods will make farmers more money and preserve their land. 


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