Field Insights

Farmers Are the Original Environmentalists

Stewardship practices not only support the environment, but they also may help decrease production costs.

Call him the “accidental conservationist.” When Wayne Fredericks began farming in northern Iowa near Osage in 1973, he used full tillage, plowing all his cornstalks and soybean stubble. Then came an early freeze in late 1991.

“I didn’t get a single acre of cornstalks tilled,” says Fredericks, a past president of the Iowa Soybean Association who serves on the American Soybean Association (ASA) board of directors. “I sat in my office that December wondering what to do.”

As it turned out, the answer to this immediate challenge offered Fredericks a more eco-friendly way to farm — and greater profit potential.

It started with an article about a Minnesota no-till farmer that appeared in the December 1991 Farm Journal magazine. That report led Fredericks to try the John Deere 750 drill the farmer used.

“Our soybeans grew well that summer; the weed control was good; and the yields were good,” he says, adding that his father was skeptical that no-till would work. “I went from plowing to raising no-till beans in one fell swoop.”

This unleashed a conservation mindset that spurred Fredericks to adopt no-till and strip tillage practices, plant windbreaks, add grass waterways to control soil erosion, and incorporate native wildflowers and grasses to protect water quality and create pollinator habitats. In 2016, he started planting cover crops to build organic matter (OM) and improve soil health.


Farmers are being asked to meet the rising demand for food and better nutrition while dealing with changing climate conditions. We want to help growers address these challenges while using land efficiently, preserving biodiversity and conserving natural resources.

Chris Davison Head of Business Sustainability at Syngenta

“These practices have lowered my cost of production, lowered nitrogen and phosphorus loss, lowered water runoff, lowered soil loss, reduced yield variability, improved soil structure, raised soil carbon levels, and maintained yields,” Fredericks says.

Embracing Practical, Proven Solutions

Farmers like Fredericks embrace continual improvement to keep their cropland productive while protecting water, soil and air quality.

All this has become more urgent as extreme weather events become more common in many growing regions. Farmers are on the front lines not only of climate change, but also of challenges arising from soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

“Farmers are being asked to meet the rising demand for food and better nutrition while dealing with changing climate conditions,” says Chris Davison, head of business sustainability for Syngenta. “We want to help growers address these challenges while using land efficiently, preserving biodiversity and conserving natural resources,” he adds, citing the company’s Good Growth Plan.

Launched in 2013, The Good Growth Plan featured six ambitious goals focused on boosting resource use efficiency, rejuvenating ecosystems and strengthening rural communities. By 2020, The Good Growth Plan reached most of its initial goals through a broad range of activities, initiatives and partnerships.

“We achieved diversification of habitat on more than 12 million acres of cropland worldwide, in addition to improving fertility on nearly 25 million acres of farmland,” Davison says.

Following up on that achievement, Syngenta now has a next-generation Good Growth Plan, which launched in June 2020. It focuses on accelerating innovation for the benefit of both farmers and the environment. It also works toward fostering carbon-neutral agriculture, helping people stay safe and healthy, and partnering for impact with companies like Kellogg’s, for example, and organizations like The Nature Conservancy.

In Arkansas, this commitment includes helping growers install timers on the water pumps for their rice fields. “These timers shut off automatically to curb water waste,” says Stacey Shaw, senior sustainability lead for Syngenta.

Practical solutions like this make sense to C. Douglas “Bubba” Simmons III, a corn and soybean grower who farms near Arcola in west-central Mississippi. “We operate in a high-risk environment with everything from hurricanes to drought, so we look for ways to manage risk.”

Simmons and his family have worked with Mississippi State University scientists through the Row-Crop Irrigation Science and Extension Research program, which helps Mississippi Delta producers reduce irrigation water use while maintaining or improving crop yields and profitability.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve cut our water usage by about 30%, and we also use less energy,” says Simmons, who tracks this data through the AgriEdge® whole-farm management program from Syngenta.

Farmers also invest their own money through ag commodity checkoff programs to support conservation research, adds Simmons, who serves on the United Soybean Board and chairs Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management (F.A.R.M.). This association of growers and landowners strives to implement recognized agricultural practices that conserve, restore and enhance the environment of northwest Mississippi.

Delta F.A.R.M. is one of the grower groups that Syngenta helps support financially. “Partnerships are key to promoting sustainability,” says Liz Hunt, head of sustainable and responsible business for Syngenta. “This includes tying sustainability metrics to farm management so farmers can measure return on investment.”

Investing in Ag Breakthroughs

Syngenta is also investing $2 billion in sustainable agriculture breakthroughs by 2025, with a goal of delivering two sustainable technology breakthroughs each year. “As the challenges facing farmers become more complex, we want to accelerate innovation,” Davison says.

These innovations build on a strong foundation that includes:

  • Enogen® Feed hybrids, offering a step-change in starch and sugar availability in the ration to help provide more available energy to feedlot and dairy cattle.
  • Agrisure Artesian® water-optimizing hybrids, which help maximize yield when it rains and boost yield potential when it doesn’t.

Proving That Conservation Pays

Using new technologies and conservation farming methods has paid off for Fredericks. Reducing tillage increased his soil OM 2.5% over 25 years, even before he started using cover crops in 2016.

He studied the value of a 1% increase (10 tons) of soil OM, based on data from the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):

  • NRCS values enhanced water availability at $18 an acre. “This is related to the ‘20/80’ rule, which says farmers lose 20% of their potential yield 80% of the time because of plant-available moisture,” Fredericks says. “Your soil has the ability to absorb more moisture when you have more OM.”
  • NRCS values mineralizable nitrogen and phosphorus at $11 per acre. Research from The Ohio State University and Kansas State University value this at $12 per acre because of the sulfur value, Fredericks says.

Add these two together, and the total value per 1% increase in OM is at least $29 an acre on an annual basis, Fredericks says. “On my farm, based on the 2.5% increase in OM, that’s roughly a $72 per acre value.”

Then he factors in an equipment cost advantage of $44 per acre for his farm, based on benchmarking data (2006 to 2013) through the farm accounting system he uses. “Over that same eight-year period, our farm showed a $27 per acre advantage for labor,” he notes. “It doesn’t take as much labor in a low-till system.”

Even when he accounts for $27 per acre to seed cover crops, that still leaves a net value of $116 per acre. “When the advantages from each conservation practice start to build up, you get even more excited about the potential for continual improvement,” Fredericks says.