The journey our food makes from field to fork can be complex. Since farmers represent the genesis of this process, it’s important to understand the practices they implement to address environmental and economic challenges in support of our food supply.
Daniel Berglund, farmer from the Texas Coastal Bend, said that while no two years in farming are the same, 2022 has presented unprecedented challenges.
“Of all the years I’ve been farming, this has been the most expensive,” Berglund said.
Farming corn, soybeans, cotton and rice, he said there is very little that has not been affected by either supply chain issues arising from the pandemic recovery or rising inflation.
“With everything today, economies of scale are hard to reach on an individual basis, so working together as families, we’re able to do some things together that really help make it profitable and keep our costs down,” Berglund said.
Equipment, such as tractors and harvesters, is one of the largest debts farmers take on to produce our food and fiber. While Berglund and his son Dillon have their own separate farms, they work together to make joint equipment purchases, which helps manage personal debts and cashflow.
While working together as a family has helped disperse some expenses, Berglund explained that exponential increases in fuel, fertilizer, insurance, vehicle repair and more, have all led to increased production costs on his farm.
“It’s been scary looking at budgets and how they’ve blossomed on the expense side, but the income side has not been all that exceptional. Of course, whenever you’re looking at your budgets, you’re thinking about yield and potential market values,” he said.
Berglund said the commodity market, the marketplace where farmers sell their crops upon harvest, has improved in some cases as of late summer. However, yield, or the amount of a crop harvested per acre, is down across Texas largely due to prolonged drought conditions.
“We’ve had about nine inches of rain, and usually by this time of year, we would’ve had 25 or 30,” he said.
Extended hot, dry weather has hindered crop growth, and thus, yields. Since the Berglund’s dryland corn and soybeans depend on rainfall for moisture, harsh climate conditions have led to well-below average yields this harvest season.
The lack of rainfall has put a strain on surface and groundwater supplies, which has increased Berglund’s inputs for irrigation in growing his rice crops. Despite the additional expense, Berglund had to utilize irrigation on his cotton crops this year in effort to make harvest yields more robust and reliable. He says the drought increases the importance for the most efficient irrigation practices available to meet the water demands across all sectors.
“Abusing anything in life doesn’t get you the best results over time, and so it’s better to work with nature and utilize the knowledge that we’ve been blessed with to keep a balance between what the land can provide and what we can do to increase its productivity, yet not be wasteful or pollute the environment in the process,” Berglund said.
Recognizing the finite availability of water, Berglund works with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas to address the resource concerns on his farms and implement conservation practices that create a mutually beneficial scenario for the environment and his crops.
Through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Berglund uses a host of conservation practices that protect water on his farm. In addition to using efficient irrigation systems, Berglund said land leveling, irrigation pipelines and structures for water control have been helpful in utilizing water effectively in his rice fields and irrigated row crops.
Water Control Structures
Land leveling is the reshaping of the surface structure where irrigation will be utilized. The leveled surface helps drain water appropriately and allows for water to be applied to crops more efficiently. Land leveling is especially important in the cultivation of rice, as rice is considered a semi-aquatic crop and requires constant irrigation.
Irrigation pipelines are installed underground as part of an irrigation water system. When properly designed, these systems transport and direct water in a way that minimizes water loss and improves water use efficiency. Then the water is dispersed above ground through a flex piping system laid out across a field. A program called Pipe Planner helps specify how large the holes should be in the pipe to disperse water appropriately across an entire field.
“It gets the water to the field where you need it right away without loss,” he said.
Finally, structures for runoff water control are utilized to help hold or drain water from his rice fields. In the off season, when no rice is growing in the field, gates are closed to capture and retain rainwater in the field to provide a habitat for waterfowl.
In addition to these water-focused practices, nutrient management is another conservation practice Berglund utilizes for all the crops on his farm. With the data he receives by taking soil samples in his fields, he uses variable rate fertilizer application, which is controlled by GPS technology, to apply fertilizer based on the soil’s needs. Nutrient management ensures fertilizer is not over or under applied. With the use of this practice, Berglund is reducing nutrient runoff into ground and surface water and protecting the water quality, while improving the health of his crops
“If we don’t maintain our ecosystem, we will lose the ability to do what we do. That means if we pollute it or over-consume any part of it, then those parts of the recipe that make this all work don’t work, because you’ve got to have the right balance of everything,” he explained.
With help from organizations like NRCS, farmers have learned to adapt to economic and environmental headwinds and implement practices that improve operational efficiency to support themselves, their employees and all of us!
Despite the challenges of this year, Berglund said he remains resilient by focusing on the fact that what he does helps provide for those he cares about and contributes economically to his community.
“It’s a lot of faith in what I do and believing that what I do is not only something I enjoy doing, but it’s also something that helps provide for my family, provide for other families, and provide for my community,” Berglund said.