In Nebraska, being a farmer carries weight, writes Filip Horácěk, business editor of Seznam Zprávy, the leading news website in the Czech Republic. Agriculture represents one-fifth of Nebraska’s GDP, and it’s both efficient and sustainable. Filip shares his impressions of the state, from the circular fields and center pivots that characterize the landscape to the sustainable practices of the multi-generational farmers and ranchers he met. Read Filip’s insights on Nebraska and sustainable U.S. agriculture, from extreme weather to innovation.

“If we plow a lot, our use of fuel and natural resources will increase dramatically,” says Steve Wellman, a Nebraskan farmer.

The fields are not plowed and are often circular. Welcome to Nebraska, a slightly different world where the term farmer actually means something. And although nature is really tough, farmers implement several practices unused in Europe and prosper as a result.

You will immediately notice that farmers hold weight here. Just walk down the street past Cornhuskers Bank, Farmers Mutual, or the Great Plains State Bank and you will find financial institutions that have their proximity to farming right in their name. At almost every intersection, there is an agricultural machinery dealership, a technical gas station, a silo, a farm, or a vendor of “magic tubes” that have made this “prairie” one of the most fertile areas of America.

Nebraska exports: from agriculture to irrigation

Nebraska is best known for its global exports of beef, corn, and soybeans, not to mention the export of irrigation systems and popcorn. Less than two million people live in an area four times the size of the Czech Republic. Forty-five thousand farm directly, half of them focused on cattle. And a quarter of the population, or half a million people, work in sectors linked to agriculture. There are 3.5 times more cows than people in Nebraska.

A fifth of Nebraska’s gross domestic product comes directly from agriculture. This would not be possible without biotechnologies such as gene modification and crop editing, capable of producing varieties resistant to extreme weather. And without irrigation technologies.

This makes local agriculture very efficient. Less than one-fifth of the land in the U.S. is suitable for agriculture, but Nebraska farms 92 percent.

“Irrigation is a major part of Nebraska’s agricultural success. Without it, there would be many areas where it would not be possible to grow the same types of crops or anything other than grass,” said Jordan Schlake, a trade representative for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Roads and towns in the center of the country are surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans watered using mobile irrigation systems. It is quite an unusual sight, because in the Czech Republic only vegetables are irrigated with water from rivers. These steel tube systems, equipped with sensors that collect soil data, can also cope well with uneven terrain. Hundreds of meters-long structures sprinkle water and move in a circle around the center pivot so slowly that you can’t even see it.

Historic drought

This year, however, there is an extreme drought and farmers are afraid that even irrigation will not save them. “It was the driest or second driest May since 1857. We usually get the most moisture in May, but this year we’re missing 6 to 7 inches of rainfall (up to 18 cm),” sighed Tyler Bruch, co-owner of Cyclone Farms, an organic farm that grows food-grade corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, and lentils.

The field is completely dry in early June, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius. The farmer and his wife take care of 3,000 acres of land (about 1,200 hectares) and because they decided not to use chemicals, they try new technologies that not many farms in America have yet. The Weed Zapper, which sits behind the tractor, destroys weeds with the help of powerful electrical currents. Forty thousand volts burn unwanted plants up to a decimeter below the ground.

Because of the weather, Tyler worries that watering won’t help this year. “It’s an additional source of water and we really need it to rain because we can’t irrigate hard enough to sustain the crops,” he said.

The Sandhills: a source of water and pasture

A quarter of the area of Nebraska is covered by the Sandhills, an area of 49,000 square kilometers, exactly the size of Slovakia, which consists of sand dunes covered with grasses. The soil is sandy, but the real wealth is a few meters underground. The Sandhills is one of the world’s largest natural reservoirs of groundwater, thanks to which irrigation is possible in much of the state. And it is also used for grazing.

Some experts fear that groundwater will run out over the next decades. So far, there is enough of it, and although it is free for farmers, it has given rise to the big business that Nebraska is known for around the world. It was here that pivot irrigation was born. Because of this, the landscape has a distinctive topography. Typical of the area, circular fields can be seen from above.

Center pivot innovation

They say everything is bigger in America. This also applies to irrigation. “In the U.S., a standard field is 164 acres (65 hectares), which is normally covered with a seven-arm pivot and a corner arm in case you want to irrigate corners as well,” said Gustavo Oberto, president of Lindsay, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of these systems.

Truly monumental are the circular fields outside the US. In Brazil, Australia, or New Zealand, they are sometimes more than 200 hectares in size.

Lindsay is one of the Big Four Nebraska firms that collectively meet 85 percent of the world’s demand for pilot irrigation. The technology has great potential, not only due to the use of artificial intelligence, which can process data from the field and apply moisture according to the needs of plants, but also due to climate change.

The main business of these companies will therefore focus on areas such as Africa that need to increase food production. However, not all irrigated fields are circular. Some systems run back and forth.

Insurance is essential. There is a risk of drought and tornadoes

As in Europe, American farmers can take advantage of a variety of subsidy programs. They are budgeted for at the federal level and paid through various agencies. Many are voluntary programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which financially compensates farmers who set aside land for non-productive areas. For example, for grasses and agroforestry systems.

Interest in the programs among U.S. farmers is growing. “It’s critical that we take care of the land, the pastures, so that the landscape is sustainable not only for the cows and for us, but for future generations,” says Homer Buell, a fourth-generation rancher at Shovel Dot Ranch, who herds 750 cows on the pasture. He is no longer on a horse like his ancestors, but on an off-road quad bike.

Homer’s biggest concern right now is finding staff. Tens of miles around, there is nothing and he can’t get anyone on the farm. “You have to love this kind of isolation. It’s difficult for some people,” he says.

Cattle are outside even during the winter in minus 30 degrees. If they have enough to eat, they are happy because the dunes give them shelter. The only dietary supplement they receive is corn gluten, a by-product of ethanol production that is produced in grain distilleries.

Nebraska also experiences extreme weather in the spring and summer. The most important government program is, therefore, crop insurance, which compensates farmers for most of the damage caused by the weather, including price drops in the market. “The worst year was 2002, when some farmers harvested virtually nothing,” says Steve Wellman, a farmer and former agriculture minister. In addition, there is an increased risk of tornadoes in some parts. The Twin Tornado of 2014 was one of the most destructive in the United States.

We do not plow, we sow in the crop residue

Even though Wellman’s term in office has ended, he continues to set an example. For instance, he built a system of terraces on his land that mitigate water erosion. Farmers in Nebraska do not have to follow crop rotation like their colleagues in Europe, where corn cannot be sown in the same field for the fourth year in a row. However, on soils prone to erosion, they must sow in the post-harvest residue, which protects the soil from water evaporation.

Farmers in the U.S. also often use no-till techniques, where they do little or no tillage, and other so-called regenerative agriculture practices, which includes sowing cover crops.

“Biotechnological protection of plants against herbicides is also a big key to making no-till soil techniques work well,” Wellman explains, adding, “If we plow, the use of fuel and natural resources will increase dramatically.”

Erosion control terraces and green belts can be seen in many fields, while some do not have them and show traces of erosion. However, sustainability has been a hot topic in the U.S. in recent years, and farmers are trying to improve and are financially motivated to do so.

One of the biggest “farmers” in Nebraska is billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, founder of CNN, who owns 500,200 acres (over 200,00 hectares). However, the vast majority of farms are family farms. This does not necessarily mean that they are small. Three-quarters of Nebraska’s farms are more than 400 hectares.

“It’s a myth that American farms are mainly corporate. 98 percent of them are family farms. Another myth is that American agricultural crops are full of pesticides. It’s not true, exported production is very sustainable,” says Tarik Eluri, sustainability manager at the U.S Soybean Export Council. The Council represents companies that export all over the world, including China and Europe.

Our reporter’s journey was possible thanks to the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

This article is reprinted with the author’s permission.