National Geographic | Hollis Bennett
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Minden, IA — After a hard day’s work, Kevin and his kids take an early evening walk around the crops.
National Geographic | Hollis Bennett

Conservation for the Future of the Family Farm

A long-range outlook keeps corn farmers thriving from one generation to the next.

On the rolling hills of western Iowa, farmer Kevin Ross carries on a tradition six generations old. He works the land where his ancestors labored, working it in a way that will both provide for his family and be ready for the time when his children might take up the family business. They already seem bred to the notion. On a recent morning, his two oldest, age seven and four, were actively helping sort cattle. “They’re far more useful on the farm than I was at that age,” says Ross, with both pride and modesty.

Nine out of ten U.S. corn farms are family owned. And since the family farm remains a big part of American rural life, committing to protecting the environment is a no-brainer. In corn country, it means preserving the land for a better future. Farmers work long, hard hours. They stay on the farm, or return to it, not because they have to, but because they love it. It’s in their blood. They understand that they belong to a tradition that did not start with them and will not end with them. Ross is no exception. Today, he is focused on long-term thinking – farming sustainably both to help his business prosper now and to care for the land in the long term.

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Minden, IA — Under Kevin’s supervision, the Ross children climb a fence, using the farm as their own personal playground.

Conservation and low-impact farming keep the land healthy for future generations. “God willing I’ve got another 20-plus crop seasons in me,” he says, “so if that’s the case, then I’ve got some time to improve my land, not just for me, for the next generation as well.”

Ross started farming when he was 19 years old, and he realized fairly early that to stay in the game he had to think down the road to preserve his land and protect the health of his soil. His commitment is visible in his fields.

One conservation practice in place for some time in hilly western Iowa is contour farming. “We try to not have rows go straight up and down the hills, we have headlands and farm with the contours of the ground,” Ross explains, “otherwise you’d have drainage and water issues. Basically you’re using your row to act as a small dam when you have a big rain, terracing has a similar effect, but on a larger scale. These tools have been effective for many years around here.”

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Minden, IA — Kevin inspects a healthy ear of corn during a warm summer evening.

Ross also farms almost exclusively on a no-till basis. “We don’t go out there on every acre with tillage equipment to tear up and bury our corn stalks or soybean stubble like we once did,” he says. “There are times when you just have to till—whether it’s a bad weed patch or cattle trails from the winter cornstalk grazing that you need to smooth up. But we’re almost 100 percent no-till. Newer tools today make it possible to still achieve the good seed to soil contact that is needed. It works well with our terrain and saves fuel by preventing extra trips across our fields.”

The no-till method also helps keep moisture in the soil while at the same time protecting it from heavy rains. “That raindrop doesn’t hit the soil directly. We hope it’ll hit the crop residue first that’s out there. In our hills where water can move downhill with more speed, this is an effective tool to help slow it down along with our terraces.” One disadvantage, Ross admits, is that his soil doesn’t warm up as quickly as tilled soil. “Some guys that have turned the soil may be able to plant a week or two earlier than I do, but for us it works pretty well.”

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Minden, IA — As a sixth-generation family farmer, Kevin holds one of his children, who may one day follow in his dad’s footsteps.

Another visible difference in his fields, Ross started putting in cover crops for soil health and extra forage for his cattle. Biodiversity is something that we used to not consider as a long term view of sustainability. Different pollinators like bees and butterflies were once taken for granted. Different food habitat for them along with other wildlife are now part of their farm’s future.

What will the future look like? Ross plans to continue farming corn and other crops using sustainable practices. He’s helping other farmers learn with the Soil Health Partnership – an initiative supported by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy to collect data and share evidence-based knowledge on improving soil health and sustainability. He knows his long-term view on sustainability will benefit the land and his children. The farm will endure long beyond them; therefore, Ross know that actions taken now will affect the future of others down the road.

He knows that the land will endure and while the farm is in his hands he will continue to make conservation a strategic part of sustaining their farm. “It’s a learning process every year and every day,” he says.

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