Size, as they say, isn’t everything. As shorthand, the big-equals-bad equation is convenient. But it obscures an inconvenient truth: Plenty of small farmers do not embrace sustainable practices — the Amish farmers I know, for example, love their pesticides — and some big farmers are creative, responsible stewards of the land. “Tony’s is a fantastic operation,” says Helene Murray, executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “And he just happens to grow a lot of corn and soybeans.”
Thompson, 57, is a fifth-generation farmer. His family came to the town of Windom in southwestern Minnesota after the Civil War in search of economic and political stability. The family’s Willow Lake Farm was always big. Until the late 20th century, it was diversified, too. The Thompsons raised cattle for beef and dairy, as well as turkeys, sheep and hogs. But in the 1970s, global politics, federal incentives and a growing appetite for grains made corn and soybeans the most profitable crops to grow.
As a young man, Thompson was, as so many of us were, an idealist. He describes challenging his father’s patience with his big plans to transition the farm to organic growing practices. But when he took over, he began to understand that success in agriculture is about finding a balance between economic and environmental sustainability.
“I know I am sending corn into a commodity stream that I have very little control of and very little knowledge of,” Thompson admits. “But I have spent my life trying to understand the margins, trying to slow down the next raindrop and help that raindrop produce a little flower for a bird. It is, maybe, less exciting to talk about. My only opportunity to make change is with the tools I have on the farm.”
Thompson’s farm is not organic as he once dreamed it would be. Indeed, after studying the scientific literature, he finds himself mostly comfortable using genetically modified seeds. The rewards inherent in herbicide-tolerant soybeans outweigh the risks, he says. While he does have some concerns about GM corn, he says, “the prevailing technology is a good path, maybe the best available at the moment. This will change. We will learn.”
Still, Thompson has many tools to improve his farm’s environmental sustainability.
He uses a technique called ridge tilling, which works like this: Instead of plowing the fields with a big tractor, he builds a narrow, elevated bed for his crops. That allows him to turn over smaller stretches of earth, keeping carbon dioxide embedded in the soil rather than releasing it into the air. The ridges also allow Thompson to precisely apply fertilizer to the plants, which means he can use 10 percent less fertilizer and still get the same yield. And the ridges keep the chemicals from running off and entering the groundwater, where they can endanger streams and rivers.