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Crop Diversity Improves the Health of Our Water – and Our Climate

January 14, 2021
In the Mississippi River Basin, we need to grow more than just corn and soybeans

It takes more than good intentions to encourage farmers to adopt practices that improve water quality and soil health.

We need to also understand the market forces that have turned the Midwest from a diverse farming landscape into an endless sea of corn and soy. And we need policy solutions and market incentives that make it easier for farmers to diversify.

Even as more farmers are adopting sustainable practices – like planting water and soil-friendly cover crops – agriculture in the Upper Mississippi River Basin remains far too reliant on just two crops.

Iowa farmer Mitchell Hora planted this cereal rye crop in the fall of 2019 to harvest as a relay crop the next spring.

In 2017, 96% of the harvested cropland in Illinois and 94% in Iowa were dedicated to corn and soy. This homogenous agricultural landscape has decreased the economic, social and environmental health of the region.

That matters because, as our agricultural system becomes more stressed by extreme weather events, we will need much more diverse and resilient markets.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe that the most durable environmental solutions for water quality are ones that will make economic sense for farmers. We are working with Deelo Consulting and other experts in agricultural markets and supply chains to explore economically viable options that will help farmers diversify crops in the Corn Belt to have more live roots in the ground year round.

A new report by Deelo, Stratagerm Consulting and Grow Well Consulting illustrates the scope of the challenge facing agriculture in the Midwest.

In 2017, 96% of the harvested cropland in Illinois and 94% in Iowa were dedicated to corn and soy.

Over the last 50 years, the report notes, corn and soy production in the region increased by 300% to 400% as farmers shifted land out of conservation easements, perennials, small grains, native grasses and pasture. As a result of this dramatic transition, there are now nearly 20 times as many acres of corn compared to all other small grains. The vast majority of corn and soy harvested today is used for livestock feed, exports and biofuels.

“Expansion of corn and soy production to the near exclusion of all other crops over the past 50 years negatively impacted soil health and water quality outcomes, as well as farm financial sustainability,” the report found.

This shift to a lower diversity of crops has taken its toll on the environment. There are fewer roots in the ground over less of the year and farmers apply more and more fertilizer to sustain and increase yields.

More bare ground means more soil erosion and more nutrients lost to the air and water. This hurts farmers and pollutes water throughout the region. The Mississippi River alone provides drinking water for nearly 20 million people and its tributaries sustain many more.

Alterations in farm economics, market forces and federal agriculture policy drove these changes – and they will be a key tool in the effort to bring more balance back to our agricultural economy.

The commodity markets for corn and soy favor low prices and high volume, which pressures farmers to cut costs and increase yields with more fertilizer, less labor and specialization.

Even with those new efficiencies of scale, farmers are operating under tight margins. Many farmers rely on federal subsidy payments and subsidized crop insurance and borrow against the value of their land to stay afloat. The existing system of markets, financing and subsidies discourages farmers from diversifying.

With our grantees and other partners, the foundation is exploring the market potential for new crops so that farmers can afford to diversify the corn-soy rotation. Adding other crops like rye and other small grains or perennials into the rotation will help reduce erosion, improve water quality and increase resiliency to flooding and droughts.

The report says that because agriculture in the Upper Mississippi River Basin lacks diversity of crops, livestock and operators, “individual farmers and the entire ag system have lost economic, social and environmental resilience. As climate change intensifies, so do the risks to this consolidated and concentrated system.”

However, the report notes that “the benefits of diversification include improved soil quality, reduced pests and disease pressures and improved water quality due to decreased erosion and nutrient runoff.

Kernza is a perennial grain with long roots that is drought-resistant and holds great potential for commercial uses and to improve the environment.

Economically, farmers benefit from diversification by spreading risks from market demand and price volatility across more saleable products.

The existing consolidated corn-soy system will not make this change easy, and farmers and policy changes cannot do it alone. The foundation and our partners understand that it is critical to engage the entire supply chain in order to drive meaningful change.

We believe that the time is ripe for agricultural companies to also embrace a new approach.

According to our new poll on climate and water, almost nine in 10 Americans (88%) think companies have an obligation to take more action on environmental issues.

As the foundation embarks on a new five-year strategy, we will continue to work with experts and grantees to learn and identify new ideas to diversify agriculture and improve resilience in the Mississippi River Basin. A more diverse agricultural landscape will benefit not only the environment, but also farmers and their communities.

As the research report correctly notes, “the need for the country and the region to build diverse, resilient, financially sustainable agricultural systems is imminent.”

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