Many Midwestern farmers remember oats as a part of their grandparents’ farm, a thing of the past. Corn and soybeans (or 2-crop rotation) now accounts for 95 percent of Iowa’s crop acres. This is slowly changing and oats, with a little help, are making their way back into modern farm crop rotation, bringing with them long-term ecological and productivity benefits, even though initial costs need to be overcome.
By increasing the number of plants on the landscape, with barley, oats, wheat or rye growing between crops of corn or soybeans, the soil is full of living roots much more of the time. These roots hold nutrients and moisture in place. When farmers grow small grains all the way to harvest, the soil gains more organic matter. Plant diversity through extended crop rotations breaks pest cycles, reduces need for fertilizer and pesticides, improves soil health, and eventually increases yields of corn and soybeans. However these are all long term-gains, making the benefits of crop rotation a hard sell as farmers wrestle with the short-term costs. Farmers are reluctant to give up potentially profitable corn and soybean acres, even with very low prices, and oats will never be the most profitable part of a rotation; they are more of an investment crop.
Like many commodities grown in monoculture (or 2-crop rotation), corn and soybeans grown in the Midwest are part of an amazingly productive and profitable system. Adding cover crops or an extended rotation adds costs that don’t pay off immediately. For many environmental groups and policy-makers, the public goods of water quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are so important that someone should provide incentives. The question is who? When no one actor in the system has complete responsibility for externalities, who pays? Should farmers be asked to pay for benefits that are downstream or in the atmosphere?
Some companies are footing part of the bill. For example, Unilever sharing some of the costs for its soybean oil suppliers to seed cover crops in Iowa. Unilever can’t fully meet the need by itself, however, and the same farmers grow corn in rotation. One big challenge is to put together collaborations of companies and public agencies to scale such practice adoption in order to scale impacts on water quality and carbon.
The Sustainable Food Lab is engaging in such a collaboration. Funded by Walton Family Foundation and McKnight Foundation, the Food Lab and Practical Farmers of Iowa are working with Grain Millers, Albert Lea Seed House, and General Mills to grow more oats and help farmers find markets, improve seed varieties, measure greenhouse gas benefits with the Cool Farm Tool, and share best practices. Read more about this here.
Cross sector partnerships are necessary, not only for cost sharing but also for research and development.
More than 80 years ago the United States suffered incredible soil erosion in the Dust Bowl, out of which the Soil Conservation Service was born. Since then farmers have evolved to not only meet market demands but also reduce tillage, use inputs with precision, and dramatically reduce soil erosion. Many of the best farmers are now trying cover crops and will experiment with extended rotations when the business case is positive. Sharing costs in the early years is a proven way to scale positive ecological impacts, but achieving such scale requires working together.