I am going in a different direction in this blog. Based off a tweet I posted on Twitter the other day. "Farming is not static, it's always evolving: better genetics, new crops, different methods." These few words generated numerous reposts, retweets, and a discussion with a gentleman about genetically modified organisms, GMO.
Farmers have always planted the best seed that they could get. In the past they saved seed from the best plants for next years crop. Then plant breeders became involved cross pollinating different plant lines to bring better characteristics to the plant. Now in the day and age of DNA testing and gene mapping, plant breeders have tools to identify the specific seeds that resulted from the cross speeding up seed development.
Companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Sygenta, have become involved in the seed business. These companies have brought advanced science that allows them to insert a gene from different plant species to make them resistant to herbicides and insects. Currently the only GMO crops in production are corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. These plants are thoroughly tested and approve by the various regulation agencies in the United States. European countries have been resistant to allow Genetically Modified Organisms to be raised, and limits imports. However the countries that make up the European Union are allowing research plots and evaluating the safety of GMO crops. I feel that GMO crops are safe, I trust the regulatory agency to use sound science to allow crops to enter our food system. I also feel that these agencies will pull a product, based on sound science, if they are found to be unsafe after release.
There has been several crops tried on our farm in addition to wheat over the past 100 some years that my family has farmed in Ottawa county Kansas. We are always looking for new crops that will fit into our cropping system. A crop that looks promising for our rotation is winter canola. Being a broad leaf plant with a similar growing season as wheat it will allow us to use different classes of herbicides to control troublesome grassy weeds that plague our wheat. A change that is going to take place is an increase our acres of dryland corn, advances from traditional breeding have made it better at tolerating droughts, a drought tolerant GMO corn is expected to be available in 5 or 6 years. With grain sorghum prices lagging behind corn we are evaluating food grade grain sorghum for the gluten free market and we have an acquaintance that in the past has shown interest for milling some into flour.
Farming methods have changed a great deal in the past several years on the farm. When I was growing up moldboard plowing wheat fields was the accepted norm, weed seeds were buried deep and the fields were kept bare with additional tillage leaving the top soil very fine and prone to blow away . Then we started burning the wheat stubble to sterilize weed seed and some mid to deep tillage to break up compaction layers, still keeping the ground bare until fall wheat seeding. On fields with less weed pressure we would be less aggressive with tillage and would leave some wheat stubble on the surface until fall wheat seeding. Then in the mid 90's we took a leap of faith and started no till farming on select fields, leaving the stubble. No till was working on those fields and we had found what crops worked and where to place them in a crop rotation so more acres were added. Now 80% of our farm land is in a long term no till system, because of lease agreements that require that land to be in continuous wheat unless it needs rotated out for weed control we would be at 100% no till.
Some of the benefits of no till is that it saves labor, fuel, it greatly reduces soil erosion, and traps soil stored carbon. It saves labor by not requiring as many people spending several hours a day performing tillage operations, but with our rotations we spend more time seeding spring planted crops and harvesting them in the fall. It takes a tremendous amout of fuel to turn the soil during tillage operations. Every time soil is turned over carbon is released into the atmosphere in addition to a tremendous amount of dust. Tillage can also create a hard layer in the soil, soil compaction, that prevents plants from reaching water and nutrients, after a few years in no till this layer disappers. Bacteria and micro-organisms essential for plants thrive under no till. The wind doesn't blow the soil away because of the crop residue shields the soil and water doesn't wash the soil away as much because it will soak into the soil much the way it did when it was a prairie. We do rely on herbicides for weed control, but with our crop rotation we can use different crops and herbicides with different modes of action to help control them. I feel in the future we will learn more about dealing with weeds and pests from the organic community and eventually there will be less difference in commercial and organic.
Farming has changed in the last 38 years of my life and will continue to change using traditional plant breeding methods with modern genetic manipulations to bring them to their fullest potential. New crops will be brought into the cropping mix as they become better suited and more economical for a farmer to produce. Farming methods will slowly continue to change, the acceptance of no till and it's variants such as strip till is growing. Who knows perennial crops might become viable or Kansas might become the leading produce state.