Though raised on the farm where he lives today, amid thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, Tony Thompson is anything but a homebody. ¶ Educated over many winters at Montana State University, where he earned an agronomy degree, Thompson, 58, remains steadfastly curious about the world at large, especially about farms and farming, and he travels widely to observe varying agricultural productions.
In what some might consider a contradiction, Thompson is both a wildlife lover and a conservationist, while remaining unapologetic about being a row-crop farmer — and as such, is part of the industrial agricultural machine that blankets the Midwest in nearly endless fields of corn and soybeans.
“There are tradeoffs to everything,” he said, “and to feed the number of people we need to feed, at the prices people want to pay, we need every farmer of all times to be engaged: small, large, organic and conventional large-scale.”
As Thompson spoke the other day, he tooled around his farm not far from Windom, in the southwest part of the state. His cropland is largely flat, black and fertile, and through his pickup’s bug-covered windshield, corn and soybeans shimmered beneath a midday sun.
Like much of the rest of the state, this part of Minnesota was inundated with rain in June. But runoff from Thompson’s 2,800 acres was minimal, because his crops are ridge-tilled, meaning residue from last year’s crop lies between the planted rows, gathering and filtering rain where it falls.
Compared to conventional tillage, ridge-tilling requires less fertilizer and reduces erosion. Thompson began the practice in 1990.
“Ridge tillage is also as cost-efficient as conventional tillage,” he said.
In a further attempt to reduce runoff into nearby Fish Lake, Thompson buffers his croplands with Conservation Reserve Program and hay acres, and he filters subsurface runoff from some of his land through an underground woodchip bioreactor.
Horace Thompson, Tony’s great-great-grandfather, established the family’s Willow Lake Farm in 1873. Surrounding the home today is an expansive lawn dotted with mature shade trees, and beyond these, small, shallow lakes and waterways divided by vegetative buffer strips.
About 8 miles from the farmhouse sprawl a few hundred acres of native prairie, its Indian grass, big and little bluestem, coneflowers and other plants colorfully in bloom.
Thompson harvests seeds from the rare plants and sells them to state and federal conservation agencies, and private conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy.
All of these non-production acres are managed as a nature preserve, off-limits to hunting, and have been for more than a half-century.
“We like to see wildlife,” said Thompson, himself a hunter.
• • •
Last winter, I invited about 25 state conservation leaders, including a sampling of farmers and others involved in agriculture, to an afternoon discussion about topics of mutual interest.
I had not met Thompson previously. But based on his reputation as a colorful, outside-the-box agricultural thinker and tinkerer, I invited him and hoped he would attend. He did, driving through a blizzard to make the north Minneapolis meeting.
I learned at that meeting, and more recently during my visit to his farm, that Thompson is a thoughtful and interesting guy. The following answers to a few of my questions confirm the impression:
Q Do farmers have any more impact on water than the rest of the society?
A Farmers share responsibility for water with the rest of society, bearing no more and no less responsibility than any other water “user.” Water passes through farms, residences, and all of our lives. We all use water. We are water. Just as each of us has to wrestle with how long to shower in the morning, whether or not to use a garbage disposal, eat meat, whether to ride a bicycle, public transportation or a gas guzzler to work, we each are required to obey the law. To take a more active position on water issues is a personal choice whether one is a farmer, a consumer of farmed products or a concerned citizen.
Q Is water that flows from your croplands as clean as it can possibly be? Is there anything else that can be done?
A I am pretty darned pleased with the quality of the water leaving my farm. There is always more that can be done. There is little more that I can do without having a serious negative impact on my productivity. How important is our agricultural product to Minnesota’s economy? This is a tough question.
Q Feeding the world is a messy business. Is it possible to produce maximum crop yields with far fewer impacts on the land than is now the case?
A Yes, absolutely. We are producing more with less every day. I have seen extraordinary improvements in my lifetime in the quantity of agricultural product leaving our farm per unit of ecological disturbance. I remember a bumper sticker from the past that said something like, “Look at your own life… if it isn’t farmed or felled it must have been mined.” We are rapacious consumers with ever-growing appetites and expectations. We have to get used to making some compromises!
I find William Cronon to be spot on with his following statement from his book, “Nature’s Metropolis,” especially because my own private passion is to understand environmental change in relation to the actions of human beings, blending as best I can the insights of ecology and economics.
To quote Cronon: “If we wish to understand the ecological consequences of our own lives — if we wish to take political and moral responsibility for those consequences — we must reconstruct the linkages between the commodities of our economy and the resources of our ecosystem.”