As part of our Small Grains in the Corn Belt initiative, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and the Food Lab are asking the questions: Can farmers be profitable when adding a small grain and cover crop to their corn and soy rotation? What additional sustainability value can be captured by the supply chain? Is it measurable and can the tools used to measure give results that are both useful feedback for farmers and lead to more informed action and investment by the supply chain as they verify impact?
Around 20 partners joined SFL and PFI during a webinar on April 4, 2019 to dig in to what we’ve learned over the last three years of working with and collecting data from farmers. The focus of the webinar was to review the methods used to answer the above questions, discuss the results and key takeaways.
Data was collected from farmers that participated in the PFI cost share program to plant a small grain plus legume cover crop in 2017 with a corn crop the following year. This data populated enterprise budgets to explore farm profitability, as well as three tools to explore environmental outcomes: Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool (RSET), Fieldprint® Calculator and Cool Farm Tool. The survey also captured management changes, including changes in inputs to the corn year.
Key learnings include the following:
- Farmers are profitable when they reduce inputs and have multiple market options. Total profit and loss for an oat/corn rotation came out favorable over a soy/corn rotation. Improved profitability comes from reducing fertilizer and herbicides as well as having additional markets to sell grain. It is important to have a systems lens and look at profit over the rotation instead of profit in each year.
- Farmers can significantly reduce emissions in a three-crop system without sacrificing yield. Sustainability gains can be measured…and importantly coached. Half of the farmers in the 2017 cohort reduced greenhouse emissions with minimal coaching, though the “best performers” were experienced in three crop rotation that both reduced inputs and maintained or increased yields. Those farmers new to extended rotations took one of two routes: they either did not reduce fertilizer inputs, or reduced inputs but a positive yield response was not (yet) realized. GHG improvements came from reduced fertilizer inputs and in the case of the Cool Farm Tool, soil carbon sequestration.
- Measurement alone cannot drive change. The real and perceived risks to farmers of making changes are high. Farmers need support to make sense of their data relative to their neighbors and to have a trusted advisor of which to ask questions. Supply chain companies can help farmers address these real or perceived risks, for example offer risk share for short term yield impacts or innovate in the supply chain to address the lack of market options to the farmer. Importantly, data input has high resource costs associated with it. Without a technical expert to identify potential issues with the scores or interpret meaning for farmer, the data may do little to help the farmer, change behavior, and realize positive outcomes.
We recognize that market demand is necessary to pull a more diverse rotation on to the landscape and that to do that we need to line up the business case for the entire supply chain. We hope that this research and webinar sheds light on two important components of the business case: farmer profitability and measurable environmental impacts. Environmental data collection tools can be useful in serving the purpose of providing the verification that companies need to track change. However, we all must explore what is needed to make sense of that data to not only inform company strategies, but also provide good coaching back to farmers on how to turn the tool outputs into actionable information.
Questions? Contact Elizabeth Reaves at [email protected].