Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: Farmer Discovers How to Protect his Water and Increase his Bottom-line

Jeremy Prater operates Cedar Creek Farm in Cedarville, Ark., along with his wife, parents and grandparents. Collectively, Prater’s family has been farming for over 100 years and recently purchased their current 230-acre plot of farmland.

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I stopped using both fertilizers and pesticides on our 230-acre Cedar Creek Farm in 2007, and our livestock, pastures and water are better for it.

And so are our profits. They’ve been increasing at a rate of about 10 percent in recent years.

My choice to eliminate fertilizer and pesticide inputs in my farming operations may make me sound to some like a wide-eyed newbie farmer, who dabbles in dreamy ideals. Let me assure that I’m not. My family has been farming for 100 years and I’m in this to turn a profit. And so are my wife, parents and grandparents, who all help operate the farm.

Indeed, my grandfather, for one, would never approve a crazy scheme that could risk our farm. He and my grandmother worked too hard – and still do. His own father was a struggling sharecropper in Texas. So when my grandfather and grandmother had an opportunity to buy farmland in Arkansas more than 50 years ago, they did so with the idea that maintaining good land and clean water would ensure the family’s future. My parents feel the same way.

When I tell you that eliminating the applications of fertilizer and pesticides saves money and protects our well water, ponds, pastures and cattle, I mean business. Good profitable business.

When I tell you that eliminating the applications of fertilizer and pesticides saves money and protects our well water, ponds, pastures and cattle, I mean business. Good profitable business. Moreover, here’s another bonus: the time we save not spraying and fertilizing goes into expanding our production of goats, hogs and free-range poultry.

All of these operations depend on keeping our water supplies clean. Clean-up and filtration of contaminated water could easily double our expenses overnight. Not long ago, runoff from large poultry operations near our farm in Cedarville, Ark., caused algal blooms that started to choke the life out of our local waterways.

The phenomenon reminded people that, yes, we all must be aware of the downstream effects of our actions. It reinforced our family’s motivation to prevent the heavy phosphorus and nitrogen loads that come from fertilizer runoff.  The only fertilizer we now use is manure and compost, applied only during the winter.

When we quit spraying the weeds, we discovered that nature’s processes quickly filled in the gap – earthworms returned to aerate the soil and more bats and birds arrived to eat the insects. We established no-mow buffer strips around pastures and ponds to absorb rainfall and runoff. Those areas filter pollutants and help capture more water for our fields and ponds.

Rotating our cattle through different parts of the pasture very frequently lessens the chances of them picking up parasites when grazing. We have not had to worm our cattle in several years – which I say with confidence, since we do test them. With better pasturelands – thanks in part to our clean water management – we have converted our beef herd into 100 percent grass-fed cows – no grain supplements, steroids or routine antibiotics. They do get all the vaccinations required by law and medicine for the occasional illness.

Some of our methods I developed with the help of my soil scientist-wife, agricultural agents and information I found in pre-1940s books about farming methods– back when people used less fertilizer and pesticide. Folks had raised cattle on pastures for a long, long time before chemical treatments existed. We can now, too.

Moreover, our neighbors are noticing the difference on our farm and asking questions. Some initially thought we were taking too large a risk. During a recent drought, however, as they went to buy hay to feed their animals, they noticed how our fields remained green and our ponds still had fish.

Farmers are very independent-minded, and change for us doesn’t happen right away. However, the real sales point here is that actions that preserve clean water also allow you to eliminate many costs and increase your bottom line. This is what gets a farmer’s attention. Along with better profits comes the security of knowing that these efforts help preserve family farms through the generations.

With the arrival of my daughter, we now have four generations living on the farm. She’s still a toddler and fascinated by the pigs. No doubt, if she wants to run the farm one day, she’ll have even better methods at her disposal. But one thing won’t change: if she wants to preserve the family tradition, she’ll need clean water.