Jason Federer began making organic changes to his Indiana farm in 2014. The 4,000-acre farm, which Federer owns, has been in his family for three generations and was always managed with sustainability in view. He remembers his father sprinkling in clover with the cash crops, long before the term “companion crop” made its way into the mainstream. Going organic meant diversifying his rotation, and instead of working with two or three cash crops he was suddenly working with an average of 10 annually — corn and soybeans, of course, but also wheat, rye, oats, barley, sunflowers, buckwheat, and peas, as well as cover crops like clover and alfalfa.
Federer is part of a growing group of researchers, farmers, and nonprofits that are working to transform the Midwestern soybean and corn belt into a more diverse cropping area. In October, the USDA gave $10 million to a new project at Purdue University designed to study how to help farmers like Federer as they diversify their farms.
Linda Prokopy is a Purdue professor of horticulture & landscape architecture and the lead investigator for the project. She says that diversifying beyond traditional soybean and corn crops can bring about both economic and ecological benefits for farmers as well as help them adapt in the face of climate change.
“Growing corn and soybeans exclusively in the Midwest is not sustainable in the long run,” she said. “As the climate continues to change, corn is not expected to yield very well in this area.” A diversity of crops means that as the weather changes, farmers will have a range of crops to fall back on if one fails. “The more diverse crops that a farm plants, the more resilient they’ll be” to the variable conditions produced by climate change, said Prokopy.
The Corn Belt region covers a large portion of the Midwest, including Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Kansas. Since the 1850s, this region has dominated corn production, and today accounts for more than 85% of the corn produced in the U.S. Much of this production is supported by federal subsidies; from 1995 to 2020, corn subsidies totaled over $100 billion.
The effects of climate change, however, are almost certain to reshape the future of farming in the region, with warmer temperatures and decreasing rainfall.
A diversity of crops not only increases adaptability but also inhibits pests and improves soil quality. It also provides ecological benefits such as pollinator habitat.
In 2022, the five-year project will begin with a series focus groups with farmers and other stakeholders. These sessions will help Prokopy’s team develop questions that farmers want answered — anything from the effects of crop diversification on pollinators to what kind of financial support is needed to develop markets for small grains and other crops. Prokopy hopes that by the end of this project, he will have a set policy recommendations to support diverse cropping in the area, which he developed in collaboration with farmers.
The Purdue project isn’t the only initiative in the region designed to help farmers diversify. Another USDA-funded effort, led by a coalition of groups, including Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and the Sustainable Food Lab, uses cost-sharing to entice farmers to incorporate small grains and cover crops into their rotation. The program supported 120 farmers who planted 12,000 acres in small grains and 500 farmers who planted 200,000 acres in cover crops. There was some overlap between the two groups.
Matt Tentis, a third-generation farmer in Kellogg, Minnesota, who’s been working with the cost-share program since 2018, plants winter rye after his cash crops are harvested. He said that the program was a valuable financial buffer for him in case he makes mistakes while trying new cropping systems. “It’s helping us to manage risk,” said Tentis. “It gave us an opportunity to ask questions and get the knowledge we needed to not make really costly mistakes.”
Federer believes that a diverse crop rotation is a better way to manage land. But it’s also been creative and fun. “It’s a whole different way of thinking,” he said, “I’m kind of rewiring my brain to think in those terms, and once you do and once it clicks together, it’s neat what you learn.”
Source: Successful Farming