Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Farmer Style

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”

Farmers take many steps to protect the land, water, and air around them for the well-being of their communities, their animals, and their families. Everyone knows the value of recycling, but farmers specifically often find unique and creative ways to recycle in order to save both money and materials. Many farmers go above and beyond with their recycling efforts, not only because it often helps them meet their equipment needs in a sustainable way, but because they want to pass on the best possible farm to the next generation of agriculturalists.

Most farmers are hoarders, but maybe that is because they always have a use for everything. I remember as a child, my father and I would often find ourselves sorting through the scrap metal pile on our farm in search of the perfect piece for our latest project. In my eyes, a farmer’s version of recycling is much different than the average person. Most people see it as a process of separating their trash and taking it to a local resource collection center, while farmers see it as an opportunity to find new ways to use old things. Here is just a glimpse into the many ways farmers reduce, reuse, and recycle:

Bailing Twine: At times it may feel like the barn is being overrun by twine. Every time a bale is opened, two more lengths of twine are added to the collection. Bailing twine is the duct tape of the agricultural world. It fixes just about anything. On our farm, it has been used as a belt, shoestrings, hair tie, sled handle, and temporary fence repair, to name only a few. I have even heard of people using it to make dog toys and lead ropes. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is NEVER throw away a piece of twine!

Coffee Cans and Plastic Containers: For many years, a Folgers coffee can has made the perfect feed scoop. Likewise, used plastic containers like yogurt cups make a great pot to start your garden plants prior to spring planting.

Conveyor Belts: After old conveyor belts have been removed from machinery, farmers find a use for them as floor mats in concrete barns. They work well when covering up pit areas and also provide additional traction for animals in areas where they are loaded and unloaded during transportation.

Feed Bags: Once their initial role as a source for storing feed is complete, these bags serve as a fire starter, trash bags, and weed barriers in gardens. Farmer’s wives even put their sewing skills to the test to make reusable bags that are perfect for grocery shopping and carrying other miscellaneous items.

Food Scraps: In our household, we were taught at a young age to clean our plates. We weren’t allowed to leave the kitchen table unless all of our food was eaten. On the rare occasion that there were leftovers, the scraps were given to the farm animals. One fun fact about eggshells specifically is that some farmers save them to feed to their chickens as a great source of calcium.

Garden Hose: I’m sure we have all been annoyed at the discovery of an unpatchable hole in a garden hose that we swear “was bought only a few years ago.” Don’t throw it away, though! A friend of mine recently pointed out that they make great five-gallon bucket handle covers.

Manure: Maybe one of the most widely recycled items of the farm, manure contains nutrients and organic matter that benefit plants and enrich the soil. Farmers use this product to increase soil productivity because it serves as a fertilizer and energy source for future cash crops. Dairy farmers have even begun using recycled manure solids as a source for stall bedding when other sources have become harder for farms to secure. Finally, the use of methane digesters on farms has become increasingly popular in converting waste into energy for on-farm and off-farm uses.

Silage Bags: Storing feedstuff in silage bags is a great way to preserve high-quality forages. Unfortunately, once farmers start feeding the product farmers find themselves with an abundance of plastic wrapping. Not only is burning plastic illegal, but it is also hazardous to the environment. Taking these agricultural plastics to a recycling center for use in future products is a farmer’s best option.

Snagged Nylons: If you are anything like me, you wear nylons once a year (if that) and when you do you rip a hole in at least one pair before even walking out the door. Some active gardeners have found a use for those darn nylons. They work perfectly for holding harvested onions in a basement or cellar.

Tires: Haylage and corn silage is a harvested product often used to feed beef and dairy cattle. Though the method of harvest is slightly different, the way they are stored is the same. In years past, farmers used upright silos (vertical storage), but they have now transitioned into drive-over feed piles, bunker silos, or plastic bags (horizontal storage). The learning curve of experience has taught farmers that the use of tires and their weight helps to maintain feed quality during storage.

Used Oil: Used motor oil never wears out. If cleaned, it can be reused repeatedly. Although some farmers have reportedly cleaned used oil and reused it in old machinery, this practice is not recommended by machinery manufacturers. Farmers use a number of options such as facilitating on-farm collections, bringing the oil to a certified collection center, or burning it in a boiler.

Water: Rainwater specifically is often collected in rain barrels and used to water animals and gardens on the farm. Dairy farmers use water to clean the manure from their free stall barns periodically throughout the day while cows are being milked. The dirty water is then collected and irrigated on fields to help nurture and grow crops.

Wooden Pallets: They just might be the most highly sought after item for Pinterest do-it-yourself projects, but farmers find themselves using them for compost bins, fire starters, and even fencing for low-impact livestock.

As you can see from the list above, there is no shortage of ways that farmers contribute to a more sustainable environment. With the help of science and technology, they continue to make our production practices more efficient. They work to meet society’s food and textile needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The farmer’s life cycle is one giant recycling center as they work to ensure that we can farm for generations to come.

By: Kylie Peterson

(feed bag image from, onions in nylons pic from, pallet corral pic from Laura Jans, contributions from Women in Agriculture Facebook Group)

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