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Stewards of the Soil
Sep 12, 2013
By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
I was taught as a young man that we don’t inherit the land from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.
On my family farm in North Dakota, this could serve as both a statement of principle as well as a description of how we work and live. When it comes to the land, we try to take the best of what we’ve learned from those who came before us, care for it in our own time, and hand it off to the people who have the strongest claim on our conscience.
We couldn’t do it without technology. To be good stewards of the soil, we must take full advantage of what science and innovation can offer, always on the lookout for how modern tools can help us grow more food and protect the earth.
My farm comes down to me from both sides of my family: My father’s grandparents and my mother’s grandparents planted and harvested these same acres. They’re gone now, but I’m reminded of them every day. I put seeds in the same dirt. I look upon trees that they planted. I use dams and dugouts that they first built.
They left a mark here—a permanent and intentional mark, not a random one like a bit of graffiti sprayed onto a wall. Every day, I see evidence of their ability to produce food from the land, using hard-earned knowledge and wisdom.
In several spots on our farm, our grandparents established shelterbelts between fields. These look like simple lines of trees, but they’re really examples of carefully designed environmental architecture. Tall trees such as cottonwoods, green ash and box elders rise up in the middle. Surrounding them are shorter trees and bushes. Placed together like this, in different sizes and densities, they form a living wall.
We use shelterbelts for the same reasons that my grandparents used them: They provide windbreaks, protecting livestock from blizzards and soil from the steady, erosive attack of air and water.
My ancestors also taught us the importance of technology. We have an obligation to use the best tools available to us. My parents and grandparents were among the first in our area to use commercial fertilizer and drive diesel tractors. This ability to accept new ideas made them better farmers who produced more food for our family and community.
We’ve tried to follow in their footsteps. When genetically modified (GM) crops became widely available as a new tool of technology about a decade ago, I was skeptical. Would they really work on weeds without hurting the crop? I had strong doubts.
Then I witnessed the amazing results: Suddenly, our fields were free of weeds and full of crops. The stalks were strong and the kernels clean and healthy. We were able to grow more food on our land than ever before, thanks to this new technology that allowed us to make the most of our limited resource.
Best of all, GM crops helped us protect the soil.
In the past, the best way to control weeds was to till the soil—to turn it over with disks and chisel plows and moldboard plows. This method helped us defeat weeds, but it also exposed the black earth to the elements. Tilling released needed moisture, killed earthworms, exposed more potential erosion and disrupted the natural workings of the soil.
Today, we conquer weeds without stressing the soil. We also use fewer pesticides, drive over our fields less often, and grow more crops. My great grandparents would be both astonished and thrilled to see how we’ve protected the land that they first planted and gotten more out of it than they ever could have dreamed possible. Yet they’d instantly recognize our determination to do what’s best for the land and to adopt technologies that help us achieve our goals.
I’m the fourth generation in my family to work here, and the fifth generation—my son and nephew—are beginning their own careers on the farm. I expect that their children and their children’s children—the people from whom we’ve borrowed this soil—will be here as well, taking up tools that are beyond the scope of my thinking and growing more food than I can imagine.
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.