Rethinking farming: Program encourages conservation work
SHAVERTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Andy Zagata has been farming for decades, so he was apprehensive about changing the way he works the land.
An incentive program from the Luzerne Conservation District convinced the 69-year-old to try something new.
The Luzerne Conservation District wants more farmers to adopt conservation practices, and it has $30,000 to help convince them.
There are a variety of conservation techniques for farming. This particular program offers incentives for no-till planting and planting cover crops. Farmers who adopt the techniques can receive $50 to $80 per acre planted using the practices.
Since trying no-till planting and cover crops through an earlier offering of the program, Zagata has adopted the methods on a wider scale.
“It’s a learning curve. We’ve done a few things wrong to begin with, but as we go along in the program, our crops are improving, the soil is becoming easier and more mellow to work. The ground is holding moisture more. Our crops seem to be improving,” he said.
No-till planting is a method of sowing seeds that avoids plowing and overturning the soil. For example, Zagata uses a seed drill that cuts a strip of soil about an inch-and-a-half wide for his corn seed and then covers the seed again.
Planting cover crops is planting an additional crop in the ground after harvesting the primary crop. The new plants keep the soil stable through the fall and sometimes as far as into the next spring until planting is ready to begin again.
“These are highly effective and relatively low-cost conservation practices that not all farmers have tried. So we’re trying to provide this incentive and show them the benefits of these practices, with the idea and the hopes that they’ll see enough benefits and they’ll continue to carry them on without incentives into the future,” said conservation district Director Josh Longmore. “Because they’ll find that there’s not only a conservation benefit but there’s also a long-term financial benefit because they’ll have improved soil health and improved production of those croplands.”
The district has offered the program before. It’s part of an ongoing effort to improve local waterways, and the streams and rivers they flow into, all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.
Farmers can apply once for specific acreage. For example, if someone previously applied for the program for 20 acres on his or her farm, they can’t apply again for that land. But the same person can apply again for other acreage that wasn’t planted with the methods.
The money for the program originates with the federal government, but comes to the district through the state’s Chesapeake Bay special projects grant.
Farmers have adopted the agriculture practices the incentive program promotes and other management practices on their own, Longmore said.
An analysis by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences showed that adoption of these methods is more widespread than even farmers themselves reported. That study showed that farmers generally under-reported how much they had used many of the conservation techniques that organizations seeking to improve water quality promote, such as nutrient management plans, dairy manure storages, barnyard runoff controls and stream bank fencing.
Zagata first used no-till planting and cover crops on about 25 or 30 acres. He now uses no-till planting on about 175 acres and cover crops on about 100 of those acres.
“Everything you do is something new, and when (you) start gambling a lot of money on something new, you’ve got go slow,” Zagata said. “If you’re investing $300 or $400 an acre to plant an acre of corn, even on a small scale, you can’t lay out $30,000 or $40,000 on a gamble. We started slow, worked our way into it and we’re well satisfied with it.”
He and his son Drew rent about a dozen farms in the western part of Luzerne County to grow corn, hay and oats, and small grains when they’re not working construction.
Zagata has heard a variety of opinions about the techniques.
A younger farmer he spoke to has also adopted the practices. Some older fellows, he said, still want to plow and till a few fields. And some fields may be well-suited for plowing. It’s all part of the things a farmer must consider for business.
“It’s almost a field-by-field and farm-by-farm decision. There’s no 100 percent right way or wrong way to do anything,” he said. “It’s a personal decision, and it’s also an economic decision and it’s an environmental decision.”