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“It really starts with the land. The first challenge you have is to optimize use of the land.”
– Varel Bailey
Farm and Food Voices
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Encourage Stewardship with Flexibility, says Iowa Farmer

Varel BaileyVarel Bailey, an Iowa crop and livestock farmer, works hard to farm in environmentally sound ways within his challenging, roller coaster-like terrain. Consequently, Bailey stresses the need for results-based conservation programs that encourage producer creativity in goals like erosion reduction and the integration of crops and livestock to minimize the use of purchased fertilizer. “Pay me to reduce soil erosion, but let me adapt that goal to my farm,” he says.

Bailey is no newcomer to farming, having taken over his family farm in 1965. He rotates among corn, soybeans and pasture and raises 125 beef cows, 100 sheep and 6,000 hogs annually. The beef and sheep graze on the hillsides, where grass provides an effective barrier against erosion, and his hogs live in 10 canvas-sided structures known as hoop buildings. While Bailey raises thousands of hogs each year, a deep layer of straw bedding in his hoop buildings both minimizes odor and provides him a fertile straw-manure mix that is easy to transport and land-spread on his crop fields. Hoop buildings are on the rise in Iowa, where farmers have embraced the conservation-minded system that vastly decreases energy bills and turns manure into a resource. (The hoop buildings do not need power-hungry cooling systems required in large-scale confinement houses.)

Type of Operation:
crop and livestock (cattle, sheep, hogs)

Land in Agriculture:
1,200 acres—2/3 in row crops, the remainder in pasture
Greatest Challenge:
combating erosion and encroaching development

Program Participation:
Iowa Department of Natural Resources Manure Management Plan, NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)

Unmet Need :
more scientific research on conservation practices and a flexible green payments system

Bailey was at the forefront of using this technology, having served as the first chairman of the Wallace Foundation for Rural Research and Development, which funded hoop research in 1989. Bailey carefully designed a cropping system that works within the confines of his rolling terrain and challenging soil types. He crops his corn and soybeans in contours and maintains grass pastures on the hillsides for his cattle and sheep. By building a strategic fencing system that runs along the contours, maintaining permanent pastures and constantly rotating crops on the hills, Bailey minimizes erosion.

“It really starts with the land,” he says. “The first challenge you have is to optimize use of the land.” While Bailey appreciates the idea behind AFT’s drive to shift commodity payments to so-called “green” payments, he stresses the need for flexibility. His farm is unique, he says, and after 40 years of farming, he’s figured out how to work around its warts.

“I’ve done a lot of things here, and one of my concerns about green payments is their lack of flexibility,” he says. “I don’t normally like the cookbook programs, you have to do x y and z to get the payments, but it may not fit my situation.”

Finally, Bailey advocates more scientific research on conservation practices to protect natural resources while enhancing productivity. If that research were conducted on the farm, so much the better, he says.

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American Farmland Trust