Farmer Perspectives: Sustainability from a farmer’s perspective

By Kelsey Pagel, CommonGround Kansas farmer volunteer 

Kelsey and her husband, Matt, are part of his family’s farm near Wetmore, Kan. They are the third generation to contribute to the operation and raise corn, soybeans, wheat, cover crops, chicken and cattle. They are living their dreams as farmers and focus on holistic and sustainable management practices.

Chances are, you’ve seen “sustainably farmed” labels at your grocery store. Did you ever stop to wonder what that means? Like many confusing food labels, the definition is not universal. In fact, sustainability can mean different things from one farm to another.

For us, sustainability simply means affirmatively answering “can you keep doing what you’re doing long term?”

I currently live and work on our farm full time. It’s my family’s sole source of income. Above all, farming is a business — and very few businesses are sustainable if they aren’t also profitable.

On our operation, we see everything from a holistic viewpoint. We firmly believe each living thing on our farm is intimately interconnected. Our choice in one area affects several other things. For example, we feel like the soil is the heart of our operation. Without healthy soil, we can’t raise healthy products — crops or beef.

To achieve healthy soil, we need to have a living root in the ground as much of the year as possible. This helps prevent erosion on our land, and each plant gives organic matter back to the soil — helping the next one grow and flourish. We believe the soil needs the same things we, as humans, need: a diverse diet, shelter against the weather and a little stress.

As soon as a crop is harvested off the ground (by machine or by animals grazing), we rush to get seeds in the ground to start growing. This is the soil’s diverse diet. Plants can actually give back nutrients to the soil.

We are a no-till operation. That means we want the ground to have cover — we consider that the soil’s shelter. In our view, plain soil is open and exposed to the elements. The soil temperature in bare spots is much higher, which requires more water to grow plants. Exposed soil can rapidly lose water and nutrients to the air. Our no-till philosophy helps maintain cool, nutritious soil even during the peak of Kansas summers.

We also want to stress the soil a bit. It’s okay for the plant to have to work a little bit to stretch those roots to get water or fight off a few bugs. The process is similar to how exercise works for our own bodies: a little stress makes us healthier overall.

Our cattle are part of our system. They help the land in a number of ways. Cattle help graze cover crops — again, our soil’s shelter and diverse diet — and add back nutrients to the land through their manure. It’s a natural process that allows the animals to take what they need from pastures and return the favor to the plants.

Our holistic approach extends to our cattle herd as well. We intentionally own the cattle from their birth until harvest, which helps us minimize stress on the animals. We perform sonograms on our finishing calves to let us know the optimal time to harvest. It’s our hope that people can truly taste the generations of work put into our pastures, crops and cattle.

There are many definitions of “sustainable” and “holistic.” The simple truth is that these definitions must change depending on the specific opportunities. To us, this is what works for our bottom line, our land and our family.

Every day, we feel the desire and responsibility to continue and improve the farm we now operate. It’s not just grocery shoppers that want farms to be sustainable — our family wants the same thing. Our parents and grandparents want our farm to be sustainable. It’s the farm they started, and it’s our job to continue the tradition.

It’s not easy, but we do our best to continually learn about the latest science, the best practices and how we can implement new techniques into our operations.

Please feel free to ask any questions or follow our lives online on Facebook and Instagram (@SustainableBitesLLC) or Snapchat (@EverydayKelsey).

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