As a farmer, recognizing and celebrating Earth Day is not a one-day event.
On April 22, 2020 the world will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. In recognition of this benchmark date, I am inviting all of you to visit my farm in Iowa. It doesn’t matter if you live down the road or in Timbuktu. You will be able to go online and take a virtual tour of my farm and see ‘first-hand’ some of the practices we are putting in place to protect and enhance the environment we live and work on.
We’re doing this to boost awareness about who farmers are and what farmers do. It’s our intent as global farmers to keep adding farm videos and take you on a tour around the world, visiting farms that are different sizes, from different geographies, growing grains and fruits and livestock and so much more.
This is essential because people often have questions about food production and agriculture. But they aren’t sure about where to go for reliable answers. If they don’t know any farmers, whom can they ask? If they live in cities, how can they learn about what we do in the fields?
That’s where the virtual tour comes in. It’s all about education and candor—our effort to help consumers and policy makers understand what we do in our tractors, the practices we use to protect the soil and water, how their food grows, and why it’s safe.
The inspiration came from Stuart Taylor, a farmer from New Zealand. I met him in January in Mexico City, at a conference sponsored by the Global Farmer Network (GFN). The purpose of the event was to gather farmers from around world and have us share ideas, information and strategies that will make us better farmers and better communicators—and that’s exactly what happened when Stuart described a plan to open his farm to visitors so that they can talk to him and see what he does.
I thought it was an excellent idea. For what it’s worth, Stuart was following in the footsteps of Ian Piggott, another GFN member who was one of the founders who launched “Open Farm Sunday” in the United Kingdom in June 2006. Since that first Open Farm Sunday, over 1600 farmers across the UK have opened their farm gates to over 2.5 million people.
This year, we planned to join this movement, too, and invite visitors to our farm this spring. With the many challenges brought forward by COVID-19, we still wanted to find a safe way to bring you onto the farm.
Our solution is to go online—and now we’re going to bring our farm to you.
The power of a virtual tour is that it doesn’t last for just a few hours on an afternoon and then vanish. This isn’t a one-day special event for Earth Day. It’s an everyday event. You can participate today or tomorrow or next month.
When you do, you’ll learn about innovations that are allowing us to grow more food and in more sustainable ways than ever before. We’re determined to be good stewards of the land.
Take cover crops. These are the crops that we plant not for food or harvesting, but for soil health. Because of them, we don’t have to till the soil, which means we save time, equipment use, and fuel. Even better, cover crops save the soil. When wind, rain and extreme weather conditions attack, the cover crops hold the soil, and more important, nutrients, in place to protect against erosion, preserve microbial diversity, and increase the yield of our corn and soybeans. They make us better farmers.
Just a few years ago, I didn’t know any of this. I was skeptical of cover crops because I hadn’t seen any data to support their use. Then my son convinced me that we should give them a try. When we saw the benefits, we became committed cover croppers, and we’re trying to persuade our fellow farmers to take up the practice.
You can see the excellent results on the virtual farm tour: Check out the rich soil in this photograph, for example.
Perhaps the biggest misperception non-farmers have about agriculture involves crop-protection products: the herbicides and pesticides we use to protect the crops from damage caused by weeds, insects, and disease. Consumers don’t always understand how science and regulations determine the amounts that we use, the timing of when we use them, and even the condition in which we can use them (not on a windy day, for example).
Virtual farm tourists will see how much care goes into the safe use of these products. They’ll get clear explanations and demonstrations. I want them to see that I’m committed to making sure that when I retire from farming, the soil is healthier than it was when I began this career.
Since Earth Day was first started in 1970, we’ve watched both the Green Revolution and the Gene Revolution improve our ability to grow safe food in abundance.
Now the Digital Revolution is letting us share what we do with everyone on a virtual farm tour.
Mark Heckman grows hogs, cattle, corn, soybeans as well as cover crops as part of a family farm partnership in SE Iowa. Mark provides risk management consulting services and volunteers as a member of the Global Farmer Network. www.globalfarmernetwork.org