Farm of the Future: Profits in Soil

Clay Mitchell represents a cross-section of Midwest farmer, high-tech engineer, and scientist. Needless to say, Clay is not your average farmer.

Though his farm in northern Iowa is well equipped with the standard tools and tractor parts, most of his operations run smoothly thanks to his automated equipment. Clay has his farm down to a measured science, with everything from automated fertilizer distribution to GPS-steered farming equipment. Clay can sit on his tractor and watch as it runs its precisely calculated course, while also monitoring grain prices on his mobile phone. There’s a reason Time Magazine has called the Mitchell Farm the “farm of the future.”

Clay comes from five generations of farmers, all working the same plot of land. But unlike many of his peers, who rely mostly on yesterday’s traditions, Clay looks to the science of today. His father instilled in him a desire to be an expert in his profession, so after receiving a biomedical engineering degree from Harvard University, Clay came back to Iowa to get back to his true love: soil.

Clay is passionate about soil, and the conservation-based practices that keep it producing food over the long term. What is conservation farming? It means approaching agriculture with sustainability in mind, focusing on preserving both soil health and our increasingly scarce water supply. At the Mitchell Farm, Clay uses no-till farming practices, leaving his crop debris on the field. This may not look as pretty as a cleared field, but the science behind it is vitally important for soil health: as it decomposes, the debris contributes to the existing organic matter in the soil. It also prevents soil erosion and keeps moisture in the soil. No-till farming allows Clay to pay particular attention to challenges such as soil compaction and water filtration, factors that can make a big difference in crop yields. But it doesn’t take a Harvard biomedical engineering degree to understand the science of farming; as he says, “every farmer should be tuned into his soil.”

Clay also believes in using the right tools for the job (which sometimes means the ones he builds himself). For instance, he uses machinery with wider tires that better distribute weight while he drives them over the same path in the field, which keeps the soil healthy by preventing it from becoming too compacted. To avoid fertilizers from getting into nearby water supplies, Clay uses a special machine with nozzles that emit different-sized droplets on the plant leaves, which dramatically reduces chemical drift. In every way he can, Clay is coming up with new innovations that will preserve the soil and make chemical use as efficient as possible.

But here is something you might not expect: even with all of these conservation-based practices in place, the Mitchell Farm is actually more profitable than surrounding farms.

How is that even possible? It makes sense that he’s achieved greater cost-effectiveness with the precision and efficiency that he’s introduced, but the conservation-based practices are actually making his soil healthier and more productive at the same time.

The results speak for themselves: the Mitchell Farm usually produces 20 to 30 percent more than its neighbors each year while saving 30 to 40 percent on fertilizer costs.

And here’s the best part: Clay isn’t keeping this stuff to himself. Instead, he has dedicated his 40 Chances to pass along his expertise to others. Clay is always hosting visitors who come from far and wide to learn about his operation, and he frequently travels the globe to share about the benefits of using GPS-guided farming equipment and the importance of maintaining precious topsoil. He works with companies like John Deere to engineer better technology, but it’s not for personal gain, and he isn’t concerned with patents or contracts. All of his efforts are geared towards empowering other farmers to be better stewards of their land, so Clay is making much of this technology publicly available, helping to reduce erosion and improve topsoil everywhere.

Clay knows that the way forward for American farmers and the world food supply will have to include better soil conservation practices, and he is using his 40 Chances to make that a reality. Considering his results so far – a farm that is more productive, more efficient, and more profitable – farmers across America have good reason to start looking to the technologies and strategies of the Mitchell Farm. In doing so, we can all start benefiting today from the farms of the future.

Editor's Note: This blog post, written by Howard W. Buffett, originally appeared on the 40 Chances blog, an intiative of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Photo courtesy of The Furrow/Dean Houghton