I’m a conservationist because I learned from my father that stewardship is a sacred duty for landowners. When I bought my first piece of land, my dad told me that my responsibility was to leave that land in better shape when it passed from my hands than it was in when I received it.
Conservation is not just one thing—it’s everything. I can still remember talking with Dad when the Conservation Reserve Program was created. I asked him if we were going to participate. He said, “No, son, because we don’t have any land that’s eligible. We aren’t farming any land that’s marginal.” He was proud of the fact that we weren't farming marginal land.
The vast majority of farmers and ranchers understand that we only own land for a short time, and we have a moral obligation to maintain its productive capacity for the generations to come. The good news is that we are continually learning how to do a better job. Despite the challenges we face, we have more tools, increasingly effective technology, better equipment, more accurate information and more data than ever before to help us with our stewardship.
Does conservation pay or does it cost? I firmly believe that good conservation plans and practices can pay their way. We are blessed with such a demand for production that some are shortcutting stewardship to maximize profit. This is a short-sighted strategy that will hurt the producers and the land in the long-term. Unfortunately as farms have increased in size, a few bad actors can now have a much greater impact on the land, the water and the resources we share.
But I’m encouraged at the commitment of most producers to seek solutions to tough problems. Former NRCS Chief Dave White and I are working with corn, soybean and pork producers in Iowa to implement nutrient management plans to voluntarily reduce nutrients reaching the state’s waterways by 30 to 40 percent. It’s a massive endeavor, comparable to the efforts in the dirty thirties to reduce erosion across middle America. But I believe it’s doable, and I’m delighted that so many farmers and ranchers are willing to make the effort to protect our water resources by switching to no-till, planting cover crops, installing wetland filters and building terraces.
As farmers we employ our own resources—land, labor, knowledge, machinery, fertilizer, seed, energy—but we also need shared resources, such as water and sunlight, to produce food, fuel and fiber. So we rely on the support of our neighbors and those downstream to give us a “license” to farm. We are fortunate to have the good will of the public, but it is a precious commodity that we must also steward through our care of the land and the rivers and streams.
So why am I a conservationist? Because I believe each of us must do what’s right and follow a fundamental stewardship ethic that goes far beyond the requirements of any regulatory regime. As we produce the crops and tend the livestock that earn us our living, we must always keep viability and sustainability in mind. We want to pass on a legacy of superior land management to those who come after us and keep a promise of leaving the land in better shape to those who’ve gone before us.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems