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Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: Clean Water is Key to My Family’s Farming Future

Roy Bardole, of Rippey, Iowa, has used no-till farming methods for 20 years and is the former chairman of the U.S. Soybean Export Council. The fourth-generation farmer’s use of GPS navigation in his farm operations has been documented and displayed as part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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I grew up on a farm. So did three generations of my family before me. Although I’ve traveled the world as the former chair of the U.S. Soybean Export Council, when my sons and I tend to our 1,800 acres of soybeans and corn in Central Iowa, I always remember the question my father taught me to ask a long time ago:

Can I do this better?

The more I look at what we do – from our computerized recordkeeping to the GPS tracking of our planting, fertilizing and harvesting – the more I realize that nothing is more important to our success than the way we manage our water.

So I keep asking myself: How can we manage that resource better?

Water always is an issue with us. It’s not just about the amount of rain, which we can’t control. It’s about the proper conservation of the water that reaches our land whether it falls from a cloudburst, flows in with a nearby stream or is drawn from our wells. After years of reviewing our business practices, I am convinced that the efficient management of water makes me more money than anything else I can do.

I live here. I drink the water. If I hurt my water supplies, then I ruin my business. Moreover, if I allow nitrogen and phosphorous runoff to hurt my neighbors’ water, then I’ve hurt their livelihoods too.

But it goes beyond that. When I realize that the water from my land flows into the Raccoon River that flows into Des Moines River that makes it way to Mississippi River, it’s clear that what we do in the relative isolation of rural Rippey (population 290) impacts the lives of surrounding communities, including the Des Moines area (population 570,000) and beyond.

However, I’m not being noble. It’s just a fact that bad water management on our land means a rough year and an uncertain future for Bardole & Sons.

Water management on my farm is the most vital thing I can do to increase my profits, protect my land and preserve the chance for my children and grandchildren to farm as well.

I want my sons and their children to have a chance to keep our farm family traditions alive, so we keep asking the question: How can we manage our water better? For us, a big part of the answer comes in the methods we use when we farm.

For more than 20 years, we’ve been no-till farmers. We don’t dig up and turn over the topsoil with plows. We leave vegetable matter and the remnants of corn and soybean plants in the field after harvesting. That helps stabilize our soils, slows down any runoff and lessens the need for adding manufactured fertilizers that can make trouble for others farther downstream.

We also use cover crops, leave buffers for streams and wetlands and test our soil so that we don’t use more nitrogen than we need. We are buying less fertilizer than ever before. In many cases, we have been able to cut our application from 240 pounds of nitrogen per acre to about 150 pounds while still producing 200 bushels of corn an acre. Of course, sometimes droughts and bad weather trump everything we do on the ground. But overall, these methods applied across 1,800 acres give us substantial monetary savings.

When decaying vegetation naturally fertilizes the soil, it means we make fewer trips to the fields to add nitrogen, and no-till farming eliminates hundreds of hours of plowing. That cuts our fuel consumption in half and allows more time to attend to other parts of the business.

Farming has some deeply entrenched traditions, and no-till farming can be a tough sell to those who haven’t witnesses the results. But when our fields hold out longer than others in the area during a drought, folks start to notice.

Clean water, less manufactured fertilizer, and better profits all tend to be persuasive. And it’s good to know that I can work to ensure my grandchildren’s future by following my own family’s tradition instilled by my dad.

That’s why we’ll keep asking how we can do better.