Reachout: My Father is a farmer

By Mike Zwingman

By Mike Zwingman

My Father is a farmer My father is a farmer.  I am not.

I left the farm and didn’t return because I didn’t see a future in it.  That’s tough for me to admit now, and mostly, I see the folly and dreams of an eighteen year old kid in that decision.  My tiny teenage brain had no vision.  I couldn’t see what the fields would look like in twenty years, thirty years, or fifty.  I couldn’t conceive of the practice or the profession, how it might change or survive.  So I left.

Today, with my frontal cortex fully formed and with an extra decade of perspective under my belt, I am different.  I can look out into that field and see twenty years into the future.  On a good day, I might say I see a half decade hence.  Somebody send me your wayward teenager and I’ll lend him some vision.

Because you’re building something and you’d like to pass it into the care of your own kind, right?  Not to a stranger.  Not to a corporation.  Not even to some cousin or nephew.  When you look out into your own fields and ponder the future, whatever the details of the practice, you see your son there, or your daughter, sinking seeds into family land.

So often, I talk about farming as a business.  I talk about yield and yield loss and return on investment.  But it’s also a way of life—a way of life that I value, regardless of the decisions I made as a teenager, and a way of life that I want to see continue into the far-flung future.

Which will have its challenges.  Even the next twenty years will not be like the last twenty.  A rapidly growing and increasingly informed consumer base will demand more and cleaner food and production agriculture will have to change to survive this clamorous future.

Fortunately, you, grower, are the most recent in a long line of inventive and adaptive stewards of the land.  You have the instinct to change.

Fortunately, you, grower, are the most recent in a long line of inventive and adaptive stewards of the land. You have the instinct to change.

Fortunately, you, grower, are the most recent in a long line of inventive and adaptive stewards of the land.  You have the instinct to change.  It is in your blood, passed down to you from the men and women who tamed the floods of the Nile, who stepped the Peruvian hillsides, who banged out the genetic code of corn.  Production agriculture has been the most innovative industry in human history and it will continue to be.I am still talking about soil health.  Innovations aren’t always glamorous and this one has been right under our feet all along.  But it is the innovation we will need.  It perfectly fits the bill for a future that will demand more and cleaner food as healthier soils encourage and support healthier plants that grow larger without fertilizer and resist disease better without chemical applications.

Today’s article is about goals.  It’s a tough one because your individual situations and humors lead to different ends.  So let’s drop the big picture for a minute and round up a few practical wants that we can all agree on today: You would like to improve your water use effectiveness. You would like to reduce your reliance on fertilizer. You would like better control over problems like weeds, insects, and disease. You want to keep your soil on your farm.

A 1% increase in your soil’s organic matter will get you there.

A 1% increase in your soil’s organic matter equates to an additional 1000 pounds of nitrogen in the top six inches and an additional 100 pounds of phosphorous and potassium.  (The value of the nutrients in an acre of soil with 4-5% organic matter is over $3000.)  It will increase your water holding capacity by two to three inches per foot.  It will reduce your soil temperatures and lead to cooler crop canopies.  It will attract beneficial bugs and reduce weed and disease pressure on your crops.

A 1% increase in your soil’s organic matter will change your life.  It will change your plant’s lives.  It will ensure the sustainability of farming through oh so many challenges, safeguard our business and our way of life, be a legacy that you are proud to pass on to your kids, and a legacy that they should be happy to receive.  Because when they look out into that field?  They’re going to see big, fat plants: a productive, sustainable operation that can take them into old age in a combine.

The only drawback to a 1% increase in your soil’s organic matter?  It will require you to change.  For some of you, that may just mean that you become more patient, because a 1% increase doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes a few years of commitment to the goal.  For others, change might mean some tweaks in your tillage system because tillage is a key practice in cultivating (or undermining) that 1% gain.  For yet others, change might mean some serious soul searching about your willingness to change and commit, some late nights pondering meaning at the edge of your fields.  Whatever the change the goal demands, remember that you have the instinct for it.  Remember your lineage and think toward the future.  Be inspired.  Didn’t someone famous once say that “only through pain do we experience growth”?  I think it was Michael Jordan.  Or Teddy Roosevelt.  Or Spiderman.

Enough with my emotions though.  I’m curious to hear your voices on this topic.  What are your goals?  What future do you see for farming in the good old U.S.?  What do you want to tell me about soil health?  I want to know.  Really.  Leave a comment below or email me at and let your voice be heard.

Next up: In anticipation of the emergence of your plants, we’ll talk plant stands: why you should evaluate them, how to, and what it all means…