Farmers need to mix it up

IOWA STATE (US) — To reduce financial risk and improve sustainability, U.S. farmers need to plant a wider variety of crops and make better use of marginal land.

The goal of any future change should not be to decrease productivity. “We are not trying to get big combines off the field,” says Cornelia Flora, professor of sociology at Iowa State University.

“This is not big ag versus little ag. Both are important. We can do big ag in wonderful ways, and big ag is always looking for ways to do things like be more sustainable while at the same time making money.”

A study is published in the journal Science.

“Any system is always adapting, and most farmers are,” Flora says. “Iowa farmers have changed. They may not all believe in climate change, but they are making adjustments to be more sustainable.”

No matter what system is in place, Iowa will still lead the nation in corn and soybean production, Flora says, but farmers need to become free from short-term price fluctuations by planting a wider variety of crops, using new crop rotations, planting fruit trees on marginal land that will keep soil in place, and having cattle graze on grasslands.

“Farmers can use some of their more unproductive land that is not very good for crops, and plant fruit trees on it,” she says. “Even in places where the dominant crops are corn and soybeans, landowners can produce or lease some land to produce fruits and vegetables.

“Currently, we have a system of price supports and subsidies that supports the production of corn and beans. But if incentives changed so that farmers could have a more sustainable rotation, and make money and reduce risk, it would be a benefit for rural and urban people alike.”

Public and producer opinion on sustainable agriculture is now in favor of farming with fewer inputs. “We’ve done interviews with farmers and they say, ‘We’d like to do things differently, but we don’t think we can afford to,'”

Under a system that stresses sustainability, there would be fewer financial subsidies for corn and beans, and more for conservation. “The farmer would be earning more. And it would be with more diversified crops.”

With historically high corn prices, getting farmers to change now may be difficult. But, when corn prices drop, as they always do, those who have diversified may be better off.

“We have to say as a society that it is valuable to us to have more diversified agriculture, to maintain our quality of water, and of our air,” Flora says.

“Unfortunately the major driver to our current system makes it financially difficult to move out of corn and soybeans.”

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