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Sustainable ag projects recalled
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COLUMNIST JOHN GIBBS writes the weekly 'Drift from a Driftless Place' column for the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

GAYS MILLS - Back when I was still teaching high school agriculture, before I retired, there were grants available from some state organization (I don’t recall which) that offered money for high school students and FFA chapters to carry out sustainable agriculture projects. The goal was to come up with ideas that helped farmers to farm more sustainably, i.e. to make less of an impact on the environment on their farm. With several students involved, we came up with a couple of ideas that I would like to share here.

The first project we carried out was done when we still raised tobacco in the area. The concept was this: very few insects bother tobacco crops. We figured that the presence of nicotine in tobacco was a strong deterrent. In fact, nicotine can be used as a pesticide. (I distinctly recall a bag of tobacco dust that my grandmother used in her garden to ward off pests.)

The students gathered a pickup load of tobacco stems after the leaves had been stripped off of them. We undertook the dirty, dusty job of grinding up these stems with a garden shredder to produce a coarsely chopped material. That material was used as a mulch around various garden plants that are bothered by insects: broccoli, cauliflower, and potatoes. We did notice that fewer insects bothered the treated plants than their untreated neighbors. The mulched plants looked bigger and healthier too, which could have resulted, in part, from the effect of the mulch retaining water and smothering out weeds. In retrospect, the stems probably contained much less nicotine than the tobacco leaves would have.

A second project involved cattle in creeks. Pastured cattle are tough on stream banks and tend to pollute creeks with their waste. At the time of this project, there was quite a big hubbub around the state about farmers having to fence cattle out of streams. Fencing is not a favorite job of most farmers. Our project was to plant trees along a stream to hold the banks and to give the cattle a way to cross the stream without doing too much damage.

The trees we planted were a fast growing hybrid poplar variety. Not a very valuable tree for either lumber or firewood, but they did serve the purpose of quickly stabilizing the stream banks. The crossing we created in the streambed was a coarse rock base and gravel on top. Cattle were funneled through the crossing by fencing the sides of the creek with a single wire electric fence. The crossing also gave the cattle access to water for drinking.

Both of these projects provided real world, hands-on experiences for students. The process of applying for a grant and planning the project and seeing it to completion  helped to stimulate thinking and creativity for all involved.