THE SOUTHERN PLAINS PERSPECTIVE: Should agriculture focus on making a profit or protecting natural resources? Why not do both?

By Clay Pope

“Soil Health Practices Boost Profits for Farmers.”

That was the headline of a story I came across recently in Successful Farming Magazine. The article went on to discuss how a recent project by the Soil Health Institute had showcased how farmers in several upper-Midwest states had increased their profits and improved their farm’s ability to withstand extreme weather by switching to practices that also helped fight climate change, control soil erosion and protect water quality.

The Institute said that of those producers interviewed, all of which had been using soil health/climate smart ag practices on their land for at least 5 years, 85% of corn growers and 88% of soybean growers saw their net income increase. The majority said that over time they had seen their yields improve and that they had reduced costs to grow corn by around $24 an acre and reduced costs to grow soybeans by around $17 an acre. On top of this, 97% of all the producers interviewed said that their crops were more resilient to extreme weather like droughts and floods

This article got me thinking…. Why is it sometimes so challenging to work in both production agriculture and natural resource conservation? Often it seems that ideas like conserving soil, protecting water or fighting climate change have been categorized as being in direct opposition to making a profit in production agriculture.

I guess I can understand why. As someone who has been involved in raising crops and cattle their entire life, I totally understand the fear that folks have about making changes to their operations and how that could impact their livelihood. Farms and ranches aren’t charity operations after all. Financial sustainability has to be a key component to natural resource sustainability…It just does.

What’s frustrating though is that this idea that agriculture has to choose between either protecting the environment or making a profit has gotten so ingrained into the consciousness of some ‘aggies’ that they automatically have a knee-jerk reaction against any idea that could protect our natural resources. As the story I referenced above demonstrates, we can do good both for our bottom lines and the environment.

I can hear some folks now…”Yea, that will work good in corn and bean country, but things are different here. It’s too hot in the summer for cover crops after winter wheat.” Or maybe “our soil is different here and they get more rain.”

These are all valid points. I would counter however that information from the Oklahoma Conservation Commission has shown that producers who undertook soil health practices in Oklahoma have seen an over $14 an acre increase in profits on crop land (you can hear more about this on a podcast we recorded some time back – LISTEN HERE) and that these producers don’t raise livestock.

Remember, you can also graze cover crops for more income—something that’s not a huge step for ‘dual purpose’ winter wheat producers (like many in Oklahoma) who already graze their wheat crop in the winter months. Most corn and soybean producers in the upper Midwest don’t run livestock. Any extra income this forage would provide is not factored into the increase they have seen per acre. For many producers in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas this could be a great source of additional income.

Its just another example of how protecting natural resources and improving our bottom lines really can go hand in hand. We just need to start thinking about things a little differently.

Clay Pope is a natural resource consultant. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his current or former employers. You can read more from Clay and listen to his podcast at