With much of the country blanketed in snow, Groundhog Day comes around routinely as a happy reminder that spring is around the corner, plus or minus a few weeks. Even though Punxsutawney Phil predicted that we have more winter ahead of us this year, farmers and agricultural researchers are already busy planning for green pastures and fruitful fields. With all of this talk of spring in the air, here are the top four things that I’m dreaming of seeing in our nation’s agricultural future:
1. A break from repetition
When it comes to farming, breaking from repetition can reap great rewards. As I discussed in a recent post, a study from UC Berkeley has demonstrated that organic farms that employ crop diversification (either by planting more crops at the same time, or by planting more complex rotations) can produce high yields while reducing negative environmental impacts. Another freshly released report, from the USDA, reveals that cover crops are promoting high yields while building soil health. In Iowa, farmers have been replacing just a small fraction of their corn fields with strips of prairie plants and achieving surprisingly disproportionate benefits, ranging from diminished erosion rates to increased biodiversity. While crop plans incorporating these and other agroecology practices can be more challenging, experts agree that they promise to support a healthier food and farm future.
2. A tribute to the International Year of Soils
In case you missed the news, this January marked the beginning of the International Year of Soils. Luckily, there are still 11 months to celebrate! There are plenty of reasons to honor our soils, which we rely on to grow our food and fiber, manage and filter our water, and store significant amounts of carbon (thereby keeping it out of the atmosphere), among other things. Although recent analyses have reminded us that a lot of our soils are severely degraded, the good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement and no shortage of management practices that can help. And the really good news? As one of my colleagues has been learning from lentil farmers in Montana, healthier soils may lead not only to healthy plants and environments, but to a healthier you.
3. Implementation of the “wins” from last year’s Farm Bill
To adequately support farmers in producing a healthy food and farming system so that farmers and eaters all benefit, what we really need is a coordinated National Food Policy. In the meantime, however, we can work with what we’ve got. This week marks the one-year anniversary of our current Farm Bill, making it an opportune time to remember some of the hard-earned successes. Hopefully, some of the renewed and improved investments in farmers’ markets, fruit and vegetable production, organic agriculture and more equitable risk management will be reflected on our nations’ fields this year.
4. Amidst a crisis, support for sustainable seeds
When it comes to crop plans, it all starts with seeds. That’s why a growing number of farmers and researchers are concerned with the ongoing loss of agricultural biodiversity, funding, and public support for plant breeding programs. As in the case of this potato, locally adapted produce grown using ecologically sound farming practices can mean more resilient fields, high yields, and greater variety in fresh produce. Fortunately, farmers and researchers are working together, against the odds, to increase the availability and affordability of improved seed.
A diet lesson from the groundhogs?
As it turns out, groundhogs—herbivores—are picky eaters with an eye towards tender greens and other tasty produce. Perhaps, then, we can take one (dietary) hint from Punxsutawney Phil this year and vote for a healthy food system with our forks.
Of course, the options of what we can vote for with our forks are predetermined by a wide array of food and agricultural policies. So, as the policies that influence what shows up first on our farms and then in our markets are implemented and designed, let’s be sure to demand that public health and the public interest come first.