By Emma Johnson
Bruce and Rick Rominger of Rominger Farms (near Winters, Yolo County) had no idea they were even nominated for the national Hugh Hammond Bennett Award for Conservation Excellence. It came as a surprise when, a few weeks before the annual conference of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), they received a call asking if they would be able to attend the meeting in San Antonio to accept their award.
Bruce says that, since he’s never been to San Antonio and he had the time to travel, he agree to make the trip. The conference was attended by nearly a thousand people from across the nation, all dedicated to conservation practices.
“We just consider it to be a great honor,” Bruce said. “Just to be among that group of people and to be singled out for that award is very humbling.”
The namesake of the award, Hugh Hammond Bennett, founded the Soil Conservation Service (which would later become the National Resources Conservation Service) in 1933. Bennett was known as the “Father of Soil Conservation.” According to the NACD’s website, the purpose of the Hugh Hammond Bennett Award for Conservation Excellence is to, “recognize those who are dedicated to conservation planning and implementation.”
In a press release sent to the Express, the NACD stated that Rominger Farms was recognized for their, “innovative conservation efforts” on their 6,500 acres of agricultural land outside of Winters. The NACD commended them on their commitment to improving soil health and efficient water use.
“Managing that many acres in an environmentally-sustainable way while maintaining productivity takes a commitment to long-term conservation planning, which makes Bruce and Rick worthy recipients of this prestigious award,” the press release reads.
For the Rominger brothers, sustainability isn’t an end-point, it’s a constant process of growth and learning.
“We are to be more environmentally sustainable all the time,” Bruce says. Currently Rominger Farms operations support a diverse array of crops, including tomatoes, wine grapes, rice, wheat, corn, safflower, alfalfa and oat hay. They have arranged tours for universities and government organizations to visit their operation and learn about their practices.
“It’s not because we have the answers,” Bruce is quick to point out. “It’s because I like the dialogue.” He says that they are always in the process of learning how to implement best practices in an economically viable way.
Discussing modern conservation farming practices, Bruce accounts for the immediate needs of farmers while simultaneously taking the long view. As he puts it, the two aren’t necessarily at odds.
The farmer’s first priority has to be staying in business, Bruce says. He points out that if he can’t make a living farming he will be replaced, and that the next person to own the land might not be dedicated to conservation.
But the necessity to make a profit is tempered by Bruce’s philosophy that people should be farming his lands 50, 100 even 500 years from now. He points to areas of Egypt and China that have been farmed successfully for thousands of years, while soil in the Central Valley has become depleted in under 200. Bruce believes that it is farmers’ responsibility to find out what it will take to make that happen.
“I’m not saying we’re there,” Bruce explained. “I’m saying we’re trying.”
One of the ways they are trying to reach the level of sustainability that will preserve the land for future generations is to apply traditional solutions to modern problems. As fifth generation farmers, Bruce and Rick can look to their own family history for methods of sustainable farming.
Bruce said that, before fertilizers were readily available for purchase, farmers like his grandfather would sow his fields with legumes between seasons. Legumes pull nitrogen, a necessary element for many of plants’ metabolic processes, from the air, where it is abundant, down into the soil. This process naturally fertilized the soil for the next crop.
The invention of synthetic fertilizers has changed the nature of farming, in some ways for the better, Rick says. It would not be possible to meet the needs of the global food demands without synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Still, Bruce says, farmers are going to have to relearn some of the old ways to remain sustainable.
One method that the Romingers brothers are currently using is the implementation of cover crops. Because their fields can’t produce a valuable crop over the winter season, the Romingers plant a cover crop between the fall harvest and the spring planting. In the past these cover crops have included triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), legumes and mustard. These crops improve the soil by increasing water retention, decreasing erosion and raising the level of organic matter in the soil.
Organic matter is simply defined as everything in the soil that isn’t a mineral. This can include decaying plant and animal matter. It is mostly made of carbon, much like the plants and animals it comes from.
Increasing the levels of carbon in the soil not only improves the quality of the soil, but has also been discussed as a way to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. This carbon transfer occurs through the process of photosynthesis. Plants take in carbon dioxide, and, through the process of converting the CO2 into carbohydrates, keeps some carbon in its structures. This carbon is then transferred through the plant into the soil.
If the carbon levels in the soil rise, the land can become a CO2 sink, meaning a reservoir for carbon.
Bruce says that while this method might be a useful method of combating the rising carbon levels in the atmosphere, it is not a viable option for all farmers. Even though it is a good practice for soil health, it can cause farmers other problems.
The reality is that this is something that is really difficult to accomplish, Bruce says.
For one thing, the cover crop has to be removed before the next crop goes in. Currently Bruce is looking at a cover crop that needs to be out in four weeks so that he can plant tomatoes, but which is in a field that is too muddy to till.
But these are difficulties that the Rominger brothers are committed to continuing to tackle. Bruce says that while some of these practices might bring up hardships, others have actually proven to be more economical than non-sustainable farming practices.
Bruce also points out that his family is living on the land that they farm. As he puts it, they like to see wildlife on their property, and if they can support the natural ecosystem along with their commercial farm, it is a benefit to all.
“Rich and Bruce are truly conservation leaders in the 21st Century,” the statement from the NACD reads. “They are good stewards of the land, eager to share their knowledge and experiences with others, willing to take risks with new and innovative technologies, informed and engaged about issues facing agriculture, and most of all, they are taking steps now to plan wisely for the next generation.“