In rural Iowa, planting anything other than corn and soybeans is akin to heresy. Iowa is the nation’s top corn producer—a crop filling 90 million U.S. acres. But environmental concerns and disappearance of family farms and rural Midwestern communities have inspired outliers such as Jeremy Gustafson.
Gustafson is growing oats, until the 1950s a major Iowa crop. Growth of livestock operations and farm consolidation caused oats to decline 98 percent in the last 50 years. Gustafson rotates oats into his corn and soy fields to lessen erosion, which drops 64 tons of barren soil per acre into waterways annually. Fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus pollute drinking water, damage water animals, and promote toxic algae blooms; Des Moines Water Works spends $1.2 million each year removing nitrates from drinking water to meet EPA requirements.
Gustafson was inspired by Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), who has been supporting and educating farmers in soil improvement for ten years. Small grain cover crops—including rye, triticale, and alfalfa—occupied 600,000 acres in 2016, up from 10,000 acres in 2009. PFI hopes to plant 1 million small grain crops in the next decade, both “cool season” and summer ones.
Matt Liebman of Iowa State University hopes these crops can ameliorate current water, soil, and diversity challenges. His research found that a three-crop rotation resulted in 86 percent less nitrogen fertilizer, 25 percent less erosion, and significantly more carbon matter.
PFI’s efforts focus on empowering farmers to know their own fields and share information. It offers an alternative to the precise, calibrated, and machine controlled operations characteristic of industrial farming. Because small grain farming is more labor intensive, Carlson sees it as a way to lure more young farmers back to the fields. “We could avert a major consolidation of farms if businesses [buying grains] really got serious about diversity,” says Carlson. “Not just for sustainability goals, but to save rural Iowa.”
Earl Canfield has diversified his 300 acres in Dunkerton, IA and gotten his family involved, incorporating oats, alfalfa, heirloom popcorn, and livestock. While small grains aren’t as profitable as soy and corn, the savings on fuel, fertilizer and herbicides bring some profit.
The global Sustainable Food Lab has partnered with PFI to encourage large food companies to invest in small grain programs to enhance corn and soy production.