How Oats Could Save Iowa’s Farmers (and Fight Pollution)

May 9, 2017 | 2:32 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

That bowl of oatmeal pictured above was my breakfast this morning. The strawberries were from nearby Virginia (hello, spring!) but the oats may have come from as far away as Sweden, Finland, or Canada. In the future, my morning oats could be grown much closer to home, in a state like Iowa that is now dominated by corn and soybeans. A new UCS report shows why that would be a good thing for US farmers and our environment.

Today’s Midwestern Corn Belt produces two crops—the aforementioned corn and soybeans—in abundance; however, this system has grown steadily less beneficial for farmers over time. US corn and soybean growers achieved record-high har­vests in 2016. But due to oversupply, prices farmers receive for these crops have plummeted, and 2016 US farm incomes were expected to drop to their lowest levels since 2002.

Endless rotations of corn and soy aren’t environmentally sustainable either. This system typically leaves fields bare for much of the year and uses tillage (plowing) practices that erode away farmers’ soil. It loads on synthetic fertilizer, leading to a nitrogen pollution problem that costs the nation an estimated $157 bil­lion per year in human health and environmental damages.

Rural communities suffer many of the consequences, with Iowa high on the list of states with surface water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, and eroded soil. And the nega­tive effects extend far beyond the Midwest. Corn Belt watersheds are major con­tributors to the annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, and nitrous oxide emissions from farm soils make up 5 percent of the US share of heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Diverse crop rotations offer multiple benefits

Fixing these problems is a little more complicated than simply planting oats, but not a lot. For the last 14 years, Iowa State University researchers have compared the typical Iowa corn-soy system with something that looks just a bit different. Innovative three- and four-year systems add combinations of winter-growing small grains (yes, those oats), an off-season cover crop, and alfalfa, a perennial crop that adds nitrogen to the soil.

I wrote years ago about the enhanced crop yields, steady profits, and reduced pesticide use and pollution produced by these year-round ground-covering rotations, and Iowa State’s most recent data continue to reflect these benefits. Average corn yields are 2 to 4 percent higher, soybean yields are 10 to 17 percent higher, and profits are similar to corn-soy alone. While cutting herbicide use by as much as 51 percent, the system positively slashed herbicide runoff into streams by as much as 96 percent, and it reduced total nitrogen fertiliz­er application rates by up to 57 percent as well.

Now, a groundbreaking analysis by UCS senior economist Kranti Mulik shows that such a modified system is scalable. Building on Iowa State’s results with additional analysis of soil erosion outcomes and economic impacts, her report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits: How Diversified Farming Systems Can Help Farmers While Protecting Soil and Preventing Pollution, found that these innovative rotations, paired with no-till practices to keep soil in place, could be imple­mented on millions of acres in Iowa today and expanded to tens of millions more over time. Specifically, she found that:

  • Diverse crop rotations could be adopted over time on 20 to 40 percent of Iowa’s farmland—5 million to 11 mil­lion acres—without changes in crop prices driving farm­ers back to predominantly corn-soy.
  • Soil erosion would be reduced by 88 percent compared with tilled corn-soy, to a sustainable level given natural soil replacement rates.
  • Taxpayers would achieve total annual savings of $124 million to $272 million from reduced surface water cleanup costs and net reductions in heat-trapping gases valued at $111 million to $233 million annually, for a total of $235 million to $505 million in environmental benefits every year.

Although we focused our analysis on Iowa, the results can be generalized throughout the Corn Belt.

So why aren’t Iowa farmers sowing oats?

A few years ago, production of oats in the United States fell to its lowest level since the Civil War. Partly, of course, that’s because most people don’t get around using oat-eating horses anymore. But even since the 1940s, oat production in Iowa has fallen steadily, as this handy graph shows (hat tip to my colleague Andrea Basche, who created it):

The change in crops planted across the state of Iowa from 1940-2012. Closed symbols represent summer annual crops while open symbols represent perennial crops or crops that grow over winter. Alfalfa, barley, hay and oats represented 45 percent of harvested acreage in 1940 and 7 percent in 2012. Source: USDA-NASS,

Struggling farmers need to diversify, and they need help

There’s no agronomic reason Iowa farmers can’t grow crops other than corn and soybeans, they just mostly don’t anymore. Maybe specialization seemed like a good idea at the time, but now farmers in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest are trapped in an endless cycle of corn and soybeans. And it can’t continue. As any financial advisor will tell you, having just a few stocks (or in this case, just a few crops) in your portfolio puts you at increased risk from price swings. And so it is with many farmers, who now rely, to a risky and ultimately unsustainable degree, on corn and soybeans.

This guy likes oats, but pigs would eat them too!

Our friends at the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are trying to turn that around. For the last few years, PFI’s Sarah Carlson and her colleagues have been working with a small group of pioneering farmers on diversifying crop rotations, including an oat pilot project. They’ve even created a YouTube video series called Rotationally Raised and a dedicated oat-growing tips video to share their experience with other farmers who might want to give diverse rotations a try.

Carlson says that many of the farmers she talks to would like to try adding oats and other crops into their mix, but they need to know they’ll be able to sell them. That’s why PFI is also talking with companies who buy a lot of oats (think cereal makers) about committing to buy Iowa oats in the future. The state’s pork producers could also be encouraged to feed oats to their pigs as a substitute for some of the corn they now buy.

Mulik believes that markets for new crops will expand once there are more oats out there looking for buyers, at lower prices than corn. To paraphrase a famous line from a movie set in Iowa, “If you grow it, they will come.”

Tell Secretary Sonny: Diversify US agriculture!

But we don’t have to wait for markets to catch up. Many farmers who might adopt a modi­fied rotation system right now face challenges including financial and technical barriers as well as crop insurance and credit con­straints. New and expanded federal farm policies are needed to help farmers overcome those barriers and reap the benefits of these systems. Our report recommends some specific policy changes Congress should take up as it reauthorizes the federal farm bill over the next year, and others the USDA could implement in the near term.

And this brings me to the Trump administration’s newly-confirmed Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. Perdue has hit the ground running, meeting with farmers at an Iowa town hall and flying over flooded farmland in Arkansas last week, while using his folksy new Twitter handle, @SecretarySonny, to assure farmers that the USDA has their back.

One way the USDA could support farmers in the Midwest and across the country is by supporting smart farming systems—like diverse crop rotations—that offer proven benefits to farmers and the rest of us. Sign our petition today urging him to prioritize healthy farm and food systems.