Joshua Dukart has seen some things on North Dakota farms and ranches he didn’t think he’d ever see, and watched conventional wisdom turned upside down.
Over the past 8 years, the technician and Certified Educator of Holistic Management with the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District has watched and learned. He’s seen enough to form a few opinions of his own on how farming and ranching could work better in the long run -- for farmers, the land and water resources they use, and the customers they serve.
Working in a county nationally known for a pocket of farmers and ranchers with a passion for soil health, Dukart has learned about farming’s bigger picture from some of the most innovative farmers and conservationists in the country.
“I’ve learned a lot from two exceptional farmers here, Gabe Brown and Ken Miller, and conservationist Jay Fuhrer,” Dukart says. “They’ve got years of first-hand experience in building soils and developing regenerative farming methods.
“Through experience, they’re convinced it’s not enough to know the parts of farming -- they have to understand the inter-relationships of those parts. It’s a different way of thinking than most of the farming world today.”
Points Dukart makes as he works with local farmers include:
1-Bigger isn’t necessarily better. When you have tight margins, you can either increase that margin or do more of the same but get bigger. It’s easier to continue doing what you have in the past than to re-think how you do things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy, but may be needed to reach your goals. Some operations are actually letting land go now so they can focus on doing a better job on a smaller operation. They’re finding they have more control of their operation, better interaction with team members and customers, and a better quality of life. When asked if people would like more money or more time…9 out of 10 will say more time.
2-Rearrange the profit equation. I see too many people hoping for a profit at the end of the year when their thinking is income minus expenses equals profit. But rearranging that equation leaves you with income minus profit equals expenses. This not only gives you control of the amount of profit you desire, but also gives you a ceiling for your expenses and really challenges your ability to keep them in check. You have to be realistic, but if you take your profit out up front, you plan for it instead of hoping for it. It forces you to become creative, and to substitute management for money with the goal of making a profit every year.
3-Let nature do the work. We like to blame Mother Nature for too much or too little of moisture, storms, temperature, wind, etc. But we create a lot of work for ourselves when we fight against nature and her tendencies. With all of the power she can wield, why would we not work with her? Our timing of seeding and harvesting crops as well as our timing of calving and breeding of animals are two concrete examples of the opportunity to work with nature and her natural cycles through the year. In order to let Mother Nature do much of the heavy lifting we need to consider the biological processes taking place throughout the year.
4-Align with nature first. Aligning your entire production model on one potential marketing option can create a “tail wagging the dog” scenario. Many producers still tend to calve in late winter (a less than opportune time for animals, people, and finances) to make sure to reach a certain target weight in the fall. Although this may gross the highest amount of dollars, if this comes at the expense of the health of the animals, the health of the operator, and/or the health of the business economically, then it is not necessarily the most profitable. Instead of struggling to get our environment to fit our production model, we would be light years ahead to fit our production model to the environment we have available.
5-Move away from dependency. We have to be careful when we replace biology with technology. I’m not saying we should go back to farming like we did 60 years ago, but there was tremendous value in a diverse farming operation with crop rotations and livestock. We’ve become very dependent on outside input sources for much of our production agriculture today, as our soils have become very degraded. We need to move away from being dependent on outside inputs where we rob from Peter to pay Paul.
6-Soil health determines human health. At first, soil health was all about feeding the soil. Then it extended to feeding plants, then to animals. However, the thinking has evolved further to realize that healthy soils are the key to healthy people…as that is where the nutritional palette starts. More and more, the emphasis is on nutrient dense foods for people in our society. But there is no chance for nutrient dense foods for people if you don’t have nutrient dense soils—nutrition has to start at the foundation to go through the whole system.
7-Stress quality. For a long time, everyone has been saying farmers need to share their story with consumers…and they should. But it’s a two-way street. Are we producing the food people want? What they need? There’s a growing demand for higher quality food and producers should be excited about that challenge, rather than angry about a potentially different direction. Whereas agriculture can sometimes be the problem, in terms of the health crisis in our country, it can also be the solution. Agriculture is still a biological process for producing high quality foods, rather than an industrial process for producing high quantity commodities.
8-Don’t settle for low production. If crops aren’t growing well, or if livestock aren’t gaining efficiently, people tend to look at genetics. But most of the time it’s not a genetic issue, it’s a nutritional issue. Environment determines nutrition and nutrition determines an organism’s ability to express itself genetically. If our soils become much more alive through our management, and therefore much more nutrient dense, it will be reflected in the genetic potential of the plants and animals reared from that soil. We haven’t even begun to see what production levels are possible if we get better and complete nutrition to both plants and animals from healthy soils.
9-Don’t bet against nature. Early on in my conservation career I tried to control nature and fix all the things nature did wrong. In the short term, that tended to work all right. But in the long term things always fell apart. Nature is very powerful, and I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to do everything we can to join nature instead of fight against her. As much as she can sometimes destroy things…she can also rebuild things across the landscape…many times in spectacular fashion. However, unless we look at things holistically, we will fail to see this possibility, let alone receive its benefits.
10-Mind the food factory. In the short term, we can mine soils to produce a crop. But our soil is our food factory, and long term we can’t produce a product at the expense of dismantling and eroding the factory. We’ve got to give back to the factory, maintain it and improve it. One feeds the other -- it’s a cycle just like the water cycle or the nutrient cycle.
- Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.