Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Farm the Best and BUFFER the Rest!"

“Farm the Best and Buffer the Rest”

This snazzy little catch phrase has been used for the last several years to describe a suggested mentality when considering profitability and environmental stewardship on the farm. So, what do we mean by the best and what in the world is a buffer?

Farming “the best” simply suggests that we look at the potential profits for farming a piece of ground after subtracting the cost for fertilizer, seed, time, pesticide/herbicide, sustainability to continue farming that piece, and risk. The fact is there are portions of fields that are planted regularly at a loss of profit and there are options that exist, such as buffers, to minimize the losses.

Think of it like this…. Let’s say you want to plant a garden and you love growing sweet corn. You just moved to a new place with lots of trees and shade. You plant the sweet corn, but only a portion of the garden grows decent because part of it is too shady (all of it was probably eaten by raccoons anyway!) You decide to try the same next year. Same result – a partial crop of raccoon ravaged sweet corn! Wouldn’t it be a better decision to plant the sweet corn in the sunny spot and either don’t plant in the shade, or put in a shade tolerant crop, personally I would go with spinach (obvious reason for spinach - because it makes you strong like Popeye the Sailorman, enough said). But the point is that not all of the garden spot was the best for growing sweet corn and essentially you are wasting your seed, planting time, fertilizer, sore back from weeding, ammunition from trying hit raccoons(oops, I mean you’re tired from chasing them!), and many of these things represent wasted cash money.

Since gardens are somewhat of a hobby to many folks and not nearly the size of most fields, the losses are not such a big deal, however for a farmer whose livelihood relies upon growing quality food in an environmentally and economically sustainable way, this can be a big problem. Ideally every acre on the farm would be making money from the crops grown and harvested each season, so this is where careful planning and management of the farm are critical. We should be figuring all the costs associated with getting the crops in the ground and sold, but the tricky part is trying to best guess what Mother Nature will do as well to determine “The Best” acres.

Three examples where we may not be farming “The Best” :
1. Those low-lying fields which flood and delay planting or prevent harvest 3 out of 5 years need to be really profitable on the 2 good years to justify continued planting.
2. The edge of the field by the woods traditionally has low yields because the trees use up the moisture and the deer/raccoons just reach out and grab an easy meal, but typically the same amount of fertilizer is spent on that acre.
3. That area of the field is always wet, no matter how much tile is installed. The equipment gets stuck and it’s yielding poorly

So, this is where the phrase “Buffer the Rest” comes in to play(for the chemistry nuts we’re not talking about raising the pH/reducing acidity levels). Fields prone to flooding, wildlife damage, excessive doughtiness, excessive wetness, etc are all great candidates for the solution of “Buffers”. A buffer can be described as a vegetated or wetland area placed in the landscape for the purpose of protecting soil resources, improving air and water quality, or enhancing fish and wildlife habitat. Many times buffers or buffer strips are referred to as filter strips or field borders. The great thing about buffers is that, once they are established, the costs associated with seed, fertilizer, and labor are gone for that area. In addition to reduced costs, there are opportunities through federal programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program, to receive an annual payment for the land enrolled as buffer. Current regulations require minimum setbacks from surface waters for spraying pesticides/herbicides and a buffer provides an automatic potentially paid-for setback. A properly planned buffer can straighten up the edges of fields and make fields easier farm all while providing all of the above mentioned benefits. Many farmers enjoy buffers/field borders simply because of the easier access that this lane provides around the field for crop scouting or for activities like hunting.

As farmers carefully calculate their profit vs cost margins, the “Farm the Best, Buffer the Rest” concept should be seriously considered along with the role that buffers can play in the overall operation.

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