The presidential horse race is currently dominating the front pages of newspapers in Iowa (and beyond). After next week’s Iowa caucuses, however, the Iowa press will most certainly return to the usual steady stream of coverage about the environmental crises du jour. In daily installments, such stories will once again detail the severe and undeniable environmental impact of the style of row crop agriculture that dominates the landscape as far as the eye can see in Iowa—and in the Midwest as a whole.
From nitrate pollution prompting lawsuits over drinking water quality, pesticide drift impacting smaller farmers, crop insurance payouts betraying economic losses in spite of record yields, there is never a dull news moment in places dominated by “big ag.” This is a perennial set of problems that signify tremendous expense and affect everyone living in agriculturally dominated states. Incongruously, the presidential candidates flooding Iowa seem to be paying little attention to the urgent challenges facing rural America and its increasingly polluted environment.
Meanwhile, on the front page of the top scientific journals, there is a brighter future coming into view for Big Ag land. Since most voters don’t read those publications, however, we want to bring you relevant and hopeful news from the frontiers of science:
In time for the caucus: conservation, economies, and corn can coexist, study shows
With impeccable timing, a newly published study from Iowa State University, by Elke Brandes and colleagues, offers the kind of win-win solution that politicians love. We haven’t been hearing about it, but we definitely should be. As it turns out, there is a strong economic case for conservation and building healthy soils on farmland. The key is identifying and managing pockets of low-productivity land and intelligently diversifying the agricultural landscape—for example, by planting perennials in those costly spots. It simply isn’t smart to invest the same costly inputs on areas that don’t return on investment the way that highly productive areas of land do.
Painful truth: Large portions of Iowa’s farmlands are losing large amounts of money
Using detailed, publicly available data, ISU researchers discovered that large areas of Iowa’s corn and soy fields (which cover more than 90% of the harvested cropland) cost more to farm than they pay out. In fact, much of the land loses over $250 per ha (about $101 per acre, or $92 per football field) according to their model.
In the least profitable years (when grain prices are low and farmers bring home fewer dollars per bushel), the researchers estimated that the money-draining lands cover massive areas. In 2015, for example, this amounted to 2.5 million hectares, or 27% of Iowa’s row-cropped area. If you are having any trouble conceptualizing this, just take a look at this map. Even in profitable years, there are pieces of farms operating at a significant loss. These losses cost nearly all of us in some form or another: the farmers, the people downstream who depend upon clean water to drink, those who depend on healthy lakes or a thriving Gulf of Mexico for their livelihoods, and the taxpayers (you!) who subsidize crop insurance for row crop farmers who lose money.
How can this be?
If it baffles you that so much land could be losing money, and with so little response, you are not alone. Nevertheless, there are many factors in play that can shed some light on this mad economic reality.
- The bottom line? When expenses are greater than profits there will be loss. Even when crops are successfully harvested and sold, profit is not guaranteed. In the new research, Brandes and colleagues calculated profits by factoring yields, grain prices, crop production costs, and the costs of renting farmland.
- The underlying problem? The landscape looks homogenous, but the soils are not. Soils differ tremendously based on their parent material, position on the landscape, prior vegetation, and other variables. This variability means that in some cases, it just doesn’t make sense to plant corn or soy on certain areas. Doing so is just as unproductive as watering your driveway.
- It’s not really the corn, it’s the system. The system of large-scale monoculture crops is the real culprit and, in Iowa, corn happens to be the star of this show.
- The crop (insurance) prop: But why would farmers keep planting in a way that leads to a loss? While crop insurance is an important tool to help farmers manage risk due to uncontrollable weather events, current federal crop insurance policies strongly incentivize the low-resilience corn-soy system and are stacked against more diversified, healthier farms. This is bad agricultural management and bad fiscal policy.
- Eroding future profits. It is worth underscoring that the dominant system is also wasting the land’s biggest asset (ahem, soil). So, this problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
The silver lining: We can afford to do better (in fact, we can’t afford not to)
Amazingly, there is good news hiding here. The major economic losses occurring on large stretches of farm fields can be avoided simply by: (1) not wasting costly inputs, and (2) planting something less expensive that can protect (or even improve) the land. Since this means fewer chemicals, less water, and more crop diversity, just this small action is good for the environment. In other words, environmental and economic goals need not be in conflict! Enrolling lands into existing conservation programs (e.g., USDA’s Agricultural Easement Program, Conservation Reserve Program, Pollinator Habitat Planting program), could help these portions of farms “break even”—at the least—while reaping environmental benefits.
Making peace, with perennials
Use of perennials—plants that live for more than two years—can be a rare win-win-win situation: for the environment, the public and the bottom line of farmers. This is because:
- Perennials can be planted in places that don’t otherwise pay. We have the technology and data available to locate areas of fields that don’t yield much, regardless of how much farmers invest.
- Perennials require few costly, damaging “inputs”. These plants need less of the fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and water that cost farmers and the environment.
- Perennials have value too. Perennials add biodiversity to the landscape, help rebuild degraded soils, reduce erosion, support pollinators, reduce pollution in runoff, and can be a cleaner, more sustainable source of power or fuel than corn ethanol.
- A small step for farmers, a big step for agriculture. Other research has shown that even relatively small changes can make a big difference. These “disproportional benefits” are so impressive that they can feel a little bit like magic. In one project, shifting just 5-20% of fields off corn or soy to perennial prairies has led to a 40-95% improvement in a wide array of environmental benefits.
Something to stand for
With such a practical solution available to address the environmental and economic woes that affect millions of Americans, why aren’t our presidential candidates talking about it in the heartland?
This new research from ISU is yet another argument for a systematic approach to a smart and coherent National Food Policy. As is often the case, the problems on Iowa’s farmlands are not happening in isolation. Federal policies that influence crop insurance, commodity markets, biofuel prices, and so on, all currently reinforce risky landscape homogenization. The alternative—a more diverse agricultural system—is not an idealistic dream, but a practical way to produce food, fuel and clean water, to build the bountiful soil of the Midwest, to protect the livelihood of farmers and to optimize the return to investment of taxpayer dollars in our food system.