Crop Diversification

If diversifying crops is an essential step toward regenerative agriculture, how do we do that in regions dependent upon 1 or 2 crops?

Carol Healy and Elizabeth Reaves

In 2017, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and Sustainable Food Lab (Sustainable Food Lab) began a partnership to test the business case for extended crop rotations in the US Midwest.

We first tracked, measured, and modeled the benefits of small grains like oats in rotation. Those benefits include improved water quality and reduced net greenhouse gas emissions from a diversified cropping system.

We also heard from farmers what they need and what it will take to realize a Midwest landscape that is still productive but growing plants year-round, or as close to year-round as the weather makes possible.

We shared results and perceived obstacles with farmers and farm organizations. We took CEOs to the field, where they learned from farmers and rainfall simulators that visually teach the consequence of different ways of farming.

Through field days, on-farm trials, and conversations across the industry, we have concluded so far that:

  1. Farmers can grow high-quality small grains to diversify a corn/soy system; and
  2. Livestock can eat small grains without affecting the quality of meat or animal performance; but
  3. Food markets for small grains such as oats and wheat are currently very limited in the US Midwest, although markets for cover crop seeds are growing rapidly;
  4. Increasing the demand for small grains is limited by the availability of on-farm and off-farm infrastructure, accounting protocols that inadequately account for the multiple benefits of soil health, and limited buy-in from the feed and ethanol industries. 

Recent government programs for climate smart agriculture are very promising, but the USDA could do much more to incentivize R&D, develop rotation crop infrastructure, and help farmers manage the risks of trying out new soil building practices.

The dogged determination of groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa has gotten 3 million acres of cover crops on the ground in Iowa. But we need 10 million acres in Iowa alone. We need markets for crops that can be grown during the cool season months, and we need local and regional markets that can support value-add grain and meat production.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Image courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa

If farmers must shift their mindset to manage for soil and water outcomes the same way they manage for productivity, then what are the enabling conditions for that shift?

Here’s our summary of current barriers that lead to next steps:

  1. Infrastructure and people are missing. Grain infrastructure in the Corn Belt is optimized for corn and soy. For rotation crops to scale, farmers would need to invest in specialized equipment and infrastructure to store, move or process those crops. Off-farm milling and transportation are also lacking. Like the physical infrastructure, we need investments in the workforce development to provide independent agronomists, NRCS and Conservation District staff, Cooperative Extension, and independent farm networks. So, we get stuck with a common question: Who bears the costs of creating the much needed physical and human resource infrastructure? Is it the role of the supply chain companies, the local or federal government, or farmers and farming communities themselves?
  • Companies struggle with greenhouse gas accounting challenges that get in the way of collaboration. Current corporate greenhouse gas measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) requirements limit the ability of companies to support whole farm rotations. Can companies be given permission to think beyond carbon to justify paying more for crops grown in an extended rotation? As companies are inching closer to their 2030 targets, will this approach stand up to the least-cost carbon reduction strategies? Will the water stewardship, soil health and farm resilience benefits hold weight in supply chain decision making?
  • Market signals for rotation crops are weak, and understandably so. The challenges of accounting for GHG reductions from extended rotations make ingredient substitutions for companies less attractive. And critically, we need multi-industry market demand for crops grown during the cool season months. While food and cover crop seed markets are important, the livestock feed and ethanol industry are essential.

Despite good intentions, the inertia of business-as-usual is keeping most farmers and companies on the path of least resistance. 

What will it take to cover the ground in the Midwest with a diversity of crops and pastures? What might companies be willing to let go of to get there? How can we reduce political risks for the public sector to become a partner? How do commodity markets improve alongside local and regional markets? These are next step conversations. Not just interesting but also essential.

Learn more about our crop diversification work here. For more on the transition to regenerative agriculture, see the latest report from The Scale Lab, formed by a group of visionary leaders of food companies and farmer organizations.

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