I've been looking into the single-crop farms in and surrounding the Cheyenne River Reservation and investigating ways to incorporate biodiversity - different crops, improving crop rotations, the integration of perennial flower strips to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects - into these operations. According to one farmer-rancher that I interviewed, most farmers want to avoid spraying pesticides and using costly treated seed; yet, sustainable agriculture needs to prove itself economically and made scalable for their operations and hundreds of acres of managed land. I think it can still be done.
Farmers, especially in economically and socially disenfranchised areas, need to be better connected to and informed by existing government agencies, like the USDA NRCS and RMA, and public and private organizations to discover ways to reduce or eliminate biocide use, really work to improve the soil quality in the area and explore ways to make sustainable farming economically feasible.
However, I think my quest or dream of sustainable ag in the region took a giant step back with the introduction of drone technology to help farmers better monitor their fields.
From the NPR story:
Catching a fungus early, documenting damage when cattle break into your fields, knowing which fields aren't flourishing so you can write them off; all these decisions can make or break a growing season. Unmanned, semi-autonomous little airplanes promise to be able to do all of that.
So this year, Reimers and his brother invested about $20,000 in a couple of small drones to begin scanning their fields. These little drones weigh less than 10 pounds each. The Reimers can fly them remotely, or the drones can be programmed to fly themselves on a grid to map and image an entire field.
The drones collect huge amounts of data, and modern farming is a data-driven business. "[That's] my role on the farm; that is all I do," Reimers says.
Like a software programmer or Web developer, Reimers runs an endless series of tests on his land, altering things like crop density, fertilizer and planting width. Modern, GPS-enabled farm equipment not only can drive itself, it's accurate within inches and can adjust precisely how much fertilizer or pesticide to spray.
If farmers know exactly how each field is faring, they may spray less. For the Reimers family that could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings each year. It could increase their yield and margins while reducing stress on the land.
It seems like big ag is simply missing the point: It all starts with soil health. Focusing on above-ground features and focusing on copious amounts of data through superfluous, expensive technology (what type of farm has an extra $20,000 for drones?!) is like putting a giant bandaid on a gaping wound.
(Header photo from original NPR story/Steve Henn)