Farm Life Journal - December 2017

By Mark Jackson

December is the countdown month for the year's parade of time, making up yet another unique year. The month's name stems from the Latin word for "tenth" and was part of the old Roman calendar, where it also was their year's end. For us here in Midwest agriculture, it's a time of renewal. The land may be fallow, but Mother Nature is still busy at work. A month of transition, we cycle between mild sunny days to ice and snow met with bitter north winds as icicles begin to adorn the roof's edge. It is, without a doubt, a mystical month that can pique the imagination of both young and old alike. It's a time to celebrate all things family and embrace not only the bounties of the year's harvest but also the treasures of life.

With that, I write my 12th and final edition of the Farm Life Journal. What a journey it has been chronicling my life around the farm and the various sources of our food. My goal was to help readers better understand the passion and commitment America's farmers have for their life's work, and our innate desire to leave the land better than we found it. I hope you've found the legacy of agriculture enriches the lives of all who dine at its table and leads the way to a stronger world.

Butterflies, Honey Bees and Bobwhite Quail

Proper grass species can affect wildlife establishment, making proper land preparation and plant establishment critical in agriculture. From flowers as pollinators for butterflies to long-stem grasses for ground birds such as pheasant and quail, the different plant species provide a multitude of benefits - serving as a food source to protection from weather extremes and cover from aerial predators. Indicators of a healthy environment come from the more sensitive species of butterflies, honey bees and bobwhite quail. Our farm's sustainability protocols mean creation and maintenance of wildlife habitat are essential for a flourishing wildlife population - aka biodiversity.

Integrating a diverse habitat with our growing crops is truly a balancing act. Deer, turkeys and water fowl can graze off emerging crops, while badgers and beavers can dig, flood and trample growing crops. Have you ever had a critter wreak havoc on your lawn, flowers or garden? If so, I'm sure you can understand my concerns. The rolling hills of southern Iowa are indicative of smaller fields and inherently more areas for wildlife to propagate. Thus, a closely regulated hunting season is our ally in maintaining a proper balance. With the hunting season upon us, a regular flow of bright orange apparel can be seen traveling our gravel roads. Some are father-son duos, others are weekend warriors in four-wheeled vehicles and there are those who are just enjoying the peace that only the great outdoors can provide.

Though Grandpa never had the privilege to see the abundance and diversity of today's wildlife, I'm sure he would smile with approval. Conveys of bobwhite quail, clucking rooster pheasants, high-soaring hawks and eagles, lumbering turkeys, bounding whitetail deer and even the occasional fleeting bobcat make up a portion of the diverse wildlife that agriculturalists will continue to make richer for generations to come.

Waterways, Terraces and Wetlands

Solid conservation practices often deploy many practices to enhance soils, protect our water and improve the overall productivity of our farms. We have several projects to complete before the weather turns, the soils freeze and snow covers the landscape. My combine is silently tucked away in the corner of the machinery shed, but my dozer - complete with its grumble and clatter - has taken its place. Reshaping waterways, building terraces, laying drainage tile and general upkeep is part of my late-fall agenda. Agriculture uses many conservation practices as habitat and food sources while boosting our soils and filtering water runoff. Fall is the ideal time to shape and build soil structures and ready them for spring planting. When done properly, waterways and terraces can last a generation with little maintenance along the way. Much like some gifts to be unwrapped later this month, there's "some assembly required," but these structures will be working 24-7 (and no batteries are needed).

December is when the farming community hopes to revisit or finish those projects put aside during the busy fall harvest. Livestock farmers are busy applying nutrients to the fields, mending fences or maybe raking cornstalks to bale for livestock bedding or feed as roughage. Row crop farmers have a long list of chores as well, from fall tillage to various conservation projects. Though harvest has ended, our list of chores seems boundless, with motivation and energy our limiting factors.

Windmills from Our Past

As I've shared throughout the year, many of my childhood memories involve my grandparents. I recall many stories of success and struggles with their farming lives - tales of runaway horses caught in quick sand, the transition from literal horse power to machinery power and how they watched concrete cover dirt roads. They experienced harvests where bundles of grain were hauled to the hot, dusty stationary threshing machine and required shoveling the separated grain. Conversely, they also had the luxury of riding in a self-steering, comfort-controlled combine that threshes grain night or day and transfers it to storage with the flip of a switch.

The march of time in U.S. agriculture has not always been an easy journey. It has been filled with heartache, sweat and labor. Nonetheless, it's endured the test of time and is an amazing success story indeed. In the early 1900s, Grandpa was one in three (38% to be exact) of the U.S. population producing food for its table and $0.25 of every dollar earned was spent on food. Today, I'm one in 100 (1% of the population) producing food for the U.S. table (plus the world's table). The cost is less than $0.10 of every dollar we earn, the lowest anywhere in the world. It's truly an amazing story of abundance, quality and consistency of production.

The windmills from our past have led to the successes of the present and technology continues to guide the way to feed a growing population. God bless!

Tomorrow is a new day.

U.S. agriculture at its best,

Mark Jackson