Diversity is incredibly important for a productive and resilient agrifood system. Diverse cropping systems can lead to greater productivity, profitability and environmental health. Diversity in the form of extended crop rotations can also reduce weed, insect, and disease pressure, which can help farmers cut the costs of their purchased inputs like herbicides and insecticides. Beyond these financial benefits, diversifying crop rotations also provides broader environmental benefits that can be experienced at both the field scale (e.g., reduced erosion) and landscape scale (e.g., reduced water quality impairment), as noted in the UCS report Rotating Crops, Turning Profits.
Greater cropping systems diversity can also help mitigate risks associated with the impacts of global climate change, which will drive more extreme and variable weather events, not to mention sustained temperature and precipitation changes that will impact agricultural production. Sadly, much of the agricultural production in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is lacking in biological diversity (at the genetic, species, and community level).
If diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, good for the land and often for our bottom line, why then are so few farmers, particularly in the Midwest, implementing diverse crop rotations?
Corn is king
In collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, I attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published with Global Environmental Change, using information from Midwest Corn Belt farmers collected via surveys and in-depth interviews to examine the facilitators and barriers of more diversified crop rotations. Overall, we found that many farmers are interested in more diverse crop rotations. However, many of them feel constrained by the current corn-corn and corn-soybean rotation that is ubiquitous across much of the Midwest—as a Wisconsin farmer said in our study, “now, you live or die by two crops.” This farmer went on to note that he did not think this adherence to such a limited crop rotation was sustainable for the long-term health of the region’s agricultural system.
Our study also found that many farmers acknowledge the benefits of diversifying their crop rotation. Some also see diverse crop rotations as a way to take advantage of climate-related changes. Unfortunately, many farmers could not figure out what crops would be financially viable in their operation given that there are few regionally competitive markets for diverse crops. We did find that greater diversity at the watershed level (measured at the HUC6 level) facilitates farmers’ use of diverse crop rotations, likely due to the presence of alternative markets (e.g., small grains or feed) and associated technological and market infrastructure. It might also be that closer proximity with other farmers who have diverse rotations provides greater support to farmers considering adopting extended rotations. Our study also found that the loss of crop/livestock integration in the region had greatly reduced the need for more diverse rotations, with many farmers noting that they used to have more diverse rotations in the past, when they managed for an integrated crop and livestock system.
Overall, our study examined how path dependence, which limits the technological and economic options that farmers have within the corn-based cropping system in the US Corn Belt, restricts farmers’ options for changing their production systems to incorporate more diverse crop rotations.
An enabling environment for diversity
To enable greater diversity, it may be necessary to address both technology and informational barriers while also identifying incentives for more economically and environmentally resilient agricultural systems. Unfortunately, many farmers who are doing things differently from their neighbors can feel ostracized in their communities. Luckily organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa and Women Food and Agriculture Network can provide farmers with communities of practice that enable them to experiment with new cropping systems or different production/conservation practices that might not be commonplace. Organizations such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, have been critically important in funding agricultural research that investigates diverse alternatives to the corn-based cropping system, such as the Prairie STRIPS project (check out efforts to re-imagine a new Leopold Center given recent funding cuts).
In our study, we suggest two primary strategies for facilitating greater cropping systems diversity in the US Corn Belt:
1) Increasing financial incentives to assist farmers with up-front costs associated with investing in new cropping systems or alternative crops, while also putting in place disincentives for monoculture production (e.g., conservation compliance); and
2) Investing in programs that will enable the development of alternative markets (e.g., perennial biofuel feedstock sources).
Diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, yet there is much work to be done to cultivate more diverse cropping systems in the Corn Belt and other agricultural regions in the U.S. In an era of global climate change, it is more important than ever to invest in agricultural production systems that reduce vulnerability by embracing the merits of agroecological diversity.