American farmers are looking for a way to be more sustainable, but they’re not willing to give up chemistry entirely.

The United States sees itself as an export powerhouse. At the same time, American farmers and producers are focused on sustainability and taking care of the land for future generations, writes Ekonom deputy editor Martin Petricek. In his home country of the Czech Republic, sustainability and productivity are often seen as poles apart, but in Louisiana, he discovers that the two can go hand in hand. Read Martin’s report on trade and farming Louisiana-style.

While Czech fields are already resting before the start of winter, the sugarcane harvest is just culminating at the Four Oaks farm near the village of Morganza in Louisiana. Combine harvesters run continuously from two o’clock in the afternoon until two o’clock in the morning. During that time, they fill about fifty giant trucks that transport the harvested raw material to a nearby mill for processing.

The growing conditions for cane are ideal in this state, which lies on the Gulf Coast and has the Mississippi River flowing through it. Even now, at the beginning of December, temperatures are usually around 25 degrees Celsius during the day, dropping to 17 degrees overnight. The climate is humid, often with heavy rain.

Although sugarcane is not one of the most common crops in the United States, its popularity has grown in recent years. Matt Frey, one of the four brothers after whom the 4,000-hectare farm is named, says its cultivation is more profitable than soybeans.

Soybeans are a key crop for local farmers. They are the number one U.S. agricultural export. Last year, exports totaled $ 27.4 billion (CZK 635 billion), and more than half of the volume went to China. For a long time, the United States was the world’s largest producer of this crop, before Brazil replaced it at the top of the list a few years ago.

Interest in American agricultural products has been on the rise for some time, and the United States strengthened its position at the top of the ranking of the world’s largest exporters last year. The country exported $177 billion in products, up 19 percent year-on-year. In addition to soybeans, important commodities also include corn, beef, wheat and cotton.

“Even this year, because of the conflict in Ukraine, we have seen increased interest in our commodities,” said Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain. But the worst of the conflict will come in the next two years, he predicts.

In many countries across the world, grain stocks will begin to dwindle because the usual volume of supplies from Ukraine won’t reach them. Strain expects Ukrainian exports this year to account for about 60 percent of previous years’ volumes. Moreover, some countries have already resorted to protectionist measures amid fears of shortages of key foods. India, for example, has restricted exports of some types of rice and imposed export duties on others.

“We expect higher commodity prices to persist for some time. In some cases, they may even increase further, such as rice. Its reserves are now at about 60 percent of what they were two years ago. And when the volume of stocks goes down, the price goes up. In the U.S., we are trying to increase production and exports,” Strain said.

Sustainable But Effective

The United States is keen to remain an agricultural export powerhouse. At the same time, however, farmers strive for sustainability and look for ways to gradually increase efficiency without jeopardizing the long-term success of their business. In Louisiana, this commitment has been built in many cases for several generations. Mead Hardwick, his brother Marshall and father Jay farm a plot of land of 8,000 hectares, roughly the size of Pardubice.

But he does not fit into the conventional image of a farmer – which is often dirty and dressed in overalls. Hardwick moved to Dallas, earned a bachelor’s degree and worked in real estate for eleven years before finding his way back to his family farm in northeastern Louisiana. The operation now produces corn, cotton, soybeans and sorghum. And he is constantly looking for ways to grow more crops on the same acreage. “It’s simple. It’s all just a game of maximum efficiency. Even in agriculture, the bigger you are, the better you can keep costs down,” says Hardwick. You also need to hire the latest technology.

“Each of our machines has GPS, which allows us to work 24 hours a day. We don’t need to do that yet. But technology also allows us to accelerate the speed at which we plant our crops. 30 years ago, we were sowing cotton at about three miles per hour, now we are reaching speeds of up to 8.5 miles per hour. Thanks to this, our productivity has increased tremendously,” says the farmer.

“We don’t do sustainability because it’s cool. We do it because it’s best for our business.”

In the Czech Republic, sustainability is often seen as something that is in stark contrast to further business development. The word “sustainable” is associated with a halt in economic growth and the need to give up part of the current standard of living. Louisiana farmers see it a little differently. “We don’t do sustainability because it’s cool. We do this because it’s best for our business,” says Mead Hardwick.

No More Plowing

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, helps farmers with sustainable practices, both through education and financial support. Its roots date back to the 1930s. In Louisiana, its branch is run by Chad Kacir. “We encourage farmers to help the land. It can’t do it alone,” says Kacir. His role has the official title of “State Conservationist” in English.

“When we talk about preservation, we don’t mean putting something in a can and sticking it on a shelf. We do not want to preserve the soil; we want to continue to use it. But it needs to be done in a sustainable way to leave it in good condition for future generations,” says Kacir.

One of the basic techniques is to reduce plowing or even use no-till cultivation, which is also used in the Czech Republic. It started to become more widespread among American farmers in the 1980s, and currently this method is used on almost a quarter of the cultivated land in the USA.

“We are able to plow the land much less, which keeps it in the field, out of the rivers, and out of the ocean. And pesticides, fertilizers and things like that remain in the fields. If we plowed the soil as standard, we would burn fuel unnecessarily. Not to mention, no-till doesn’t require as much human labor,” says Hardwick.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture argues that fields farmed without tillage have a higher water retention capacity than conventionally cultivated fields in just a few years. This is especially useful for drier areas where lack of water and irrigation could lead to crop loss.

Farmers in Louisiana are not worried about the lack of moisture. It is the rainiest North American state. An average of about 1,500 millimeters of precipitation falls here annually, which is more than double the average for the Czech Republic. However, the no-till method helps them reduce soil erosion while increasing the biological activity and amount of organic matter in the soil. These benefits can lead to additional economic gains for farmers over time.

The goal is to preserve life in the soil at all times. “Thanks to research, we know that there is a living world in the soil, microorganisms, fungi, plant roots. Symbiotic processes take place between them. It is a whole system of ties that is disrupted by plowing. But on the contrary, we want to support it,” says Kacir.

Crayfish in Rice Fields

In practice, this means that plant residues left after the previous harvest remain in the fields. Alternatively, other crops are sown for the winter, which are called cover crops here, catch crops in the Czech Republic. Their main goal is to improve the condition of the soil after harvesting.

Not far from the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge, Don Schexnayder farms 1,300 hectares. He points to the field where he harvested soybeans two months ago. Now the crops that are supposed to protect the soil over the winter are green in the field: radishes, peas and vetch. “In the spring, with roundup, we’ll ‘burn’ them and be ready for the next season,” says the farmer.

Organic farming cannot sustain the planet. In our country, yields would fall by half if we stopped using fertilizers.

While there are debates in the European Union about a total ban on this glyphosate-based herbicide, Schexnayder does not see a problem with it. In his opinion, this is the best way to fight weeds. The higher need for herbicides is one of the disadvantages of the no-till method compared to traditional plowing. “But thanks to the precise dosing, we use chemistry in much smaller quantities than before. My goal is to leave the soil for the next generation in a better condition than I got it,” says Schexnayder.

In Louisiana, they have also found an interesting way to use rice fields after harvest. Rice grows in fields that are flooded with water. Farmers leave the water in the field and add crayfish, a popular local delicacy. As recently as the last century, crayfish were collected in the spillway of the Atchafalaya River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Then they found out that crayfish live in their fields, and they had the idea to breed them in bulk.

It’s very simple. Shortly after harvesting rice in the fall, they place the crayfish in “ponds” with the remains of plants that the crayfish feed on. In the pond, they multiply, and in a few months, mostly from February, it is possible to start collecting them. To do this, there are special wire traps into which the crayfish crawl. “Crayfish make growing rice more worthwhile,” says Fred Zaunbrecher, a farmer in central Louisiana.

Voluntary journey

State “conservationist” Kacir says farmers can join the principles voluntarily. “We don’t force anyone to do anything. We’re just explaining the benefits of this approach. Every farmer works on his land, it’s entirely up to him what he does with it,” he says. However, financial incentives also work, but there are no blanket subsidies.

Although Louisiana farmers are striving for sustainability, reforesting parts of their land and striving for biodiversity, they say their goal is not to combat climate change.

The Hardwick Family

“Organic farming cannot sustain the planet. And in our country, its implementation would be very complicated. Yields would halve if we stopped using pesticides in our state. We are in the subtropical zone, fighting insects, pests, weeds. It can work somewhere, like Texas or California, where the climate is drier than here in Louisiana,” says Mead Hardwick.

Commissioner Strain says ways to multiply production on existing land must be sought. “We need to look for ways to make better use of natural resources. To breed new crop varieties,” Strain told reporters at the Port of Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River. It is the seventh largest port in the U.S. and, along with others in the delta of the river, forms the largest export facility.

“Mississippi is America’s agricultural trade superhighway, and about 60 percent of U.S. production that goes for export is transported on this river. The world is now consuming more grains than it produces, and supplies are dwindling every year,” Strain says. Of course, his primary goal is not to feed the world, but to take advantage of the current situation and help American farmers earn more.

Louisiana, for example, supports research into new rice varieties at Louisiana State University’s Rice Research Station. With the help of this center, rice yields increased by 62 percent between 1980 and 2015. By modifying procedures, breeding, in this case without genetic modification, which is otherwise commonly used in the USA.

At the university, they are also looking for ways to make crops more water-resistant. “This year, we have lost a large part of our soybean crop in Louisiana due to heavy three-week rains. For corn and wheat, more resistant variants have already been found,” Strain summarizes.

Precision agriculture, based on the principle that there are large differences in soil fertility, even within a single plot, can also pave the way to higher yields. The field is divided into small areas, and the quality of the soil and past yields determine where more or less fertilizer needs to be used. This cannot be achieved without modern technology. The machines navigate the field using GPS. This makes it easy to determine the exact yield of each square meter.

More about this article

This is a translation of an article by Martin Petricek, the deputy editor-in-chief of Ekonom – the most widely-read business and economic weekly in the Czech Republic.