By Travis Hutchison, Chairman, Maryland Soybean Board
(March 17, 2017) – As we recognize 2017 National Ag Day on March 21 and Earth Day next month, we begin another year in the fields. I’ve been thinking about the ways things have changed on our family farm from my father’s generation to mine, to protect the environment for my generation and the next.
At this time of year when I was a kid, my dad did a lot of moldboard plowing to get the ground in shape for planting. This meant the plow dug about 8 inches deep and, as it sliced through the soil, turned the ground completely over. We had been taught that this method would lead to better yields and better weed control.
Over the years, we learned the opposite — that minimum tillage and no-till could give us as good or better results. By reducing tillage, we saved on labor, reduced emissions, and, most importantly for the Bay and our future as farmers, minimized soil erosion.
And that’s not the only change. In the past, we applied most of our fertilizer at one time. Now we split up our fertilizer applications and “spoon feed” the crops. We’re not putting on more fertilizer, just applying it as the crop needs it. We use a pre-sidedress nitrate test or “PSNT,” which samples the soil for its levels of nitrogen (a key plant food) to determine how much the plant needs to finish out the crop.
Because my family believes strongly in protecting our land and water resources, we’ve followed a nutrient management plan on our farm long before the state of Maryland required all state farmers to do so. People probably don’t realize the work farmers put in on these plans – testing their soil and poultry manure for nutrients and balancing those against crop needs for each field and then maintaining the records to prove you followed the plan.
Like most Maryland farmers I know, we constantly evaluate new ideas, technology and practices to see if they work on our farm.
We plant about three-quarters of our acres in cover crops each fall, using cold-hardy plants to protect the soil from erosion, tap nutrients that may have been left behind by a previous crop, and provide organic matter to improve the soil after the cover dies. It’s not only the organic farms that use cover crops or care about improving soil. We put a lot of effort into our soil.
Building our soil means adding organic matter, so we buy up to 4,000 tons of chicken manure each year. Yes, you read that right: we BUY manure! It’s a great fertilizer and soil enhancer. Our ground has low phosphorus so we use as much as we can. We also invested in a manure shed that lets us receive manure year-round and keep it covered, so rainfall doesn’t wash away nutrients.
And, we invested in Green Seeker Technology. This is a sensor that reads the chlorophyll (or “green”) of plant leaves to determine if they need more nitrogen, then customizes the fertilizer application. That’s great for plant health and yield, and great for us as farmers.
Our family knows that by using this technology we are fertilizing the right amount at the right time for the crop. Although it’s an expensive investment, it will pay off over time, and we know it’s the right choice for our land, our business and our family.
Recently, on three of our farms, we installed ditch bioreactors. They funnel the water from the ditch into a structure with wood chips. The chips remove nitrogen from the water, allowing the water to exit the bioreactor with up to 90 percent nitrogen reduction.
These are just some of the practices that my family and I have adopted on our farmland. In total, my family has a list showing more than 40 practices that Maryland farmers have adapted to protect the environment. That’s why I’m proud to say farmers are the “original environmentalists.”
On behalf of my fellow Maryland farmers, I invite the community to learn more by visiting a few farms (you’ll find many at www.marylandsbest.net) and talking with Maryland farmers about the many ways they protect our natural resources.
Hutchison farms with his father, two uncles and cousins at Hutchison Brothers farm in Cordova, Md. He is chairman of the Maryland Soybean Board.