Published: February 8, 2021

Category: Regenerative Agriculture

Agriculture in the Upper Mississippi River Basin remains far too reliant on just two crops—corn and soybeans. These crop monocultures have decreased the economic, social, and environmental health of the region.

In 2017, 96% of the harvested cropland in Illinois and 94% in Iowa were dedicated to corn and soy. Greater agricultural diversity is needed to adapt to extreme weather events caused by climate change.

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

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 Walton Family Foundation is 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.

With its grantees and other partners, the Walton Family 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. For example, the perennial grain Kernza is drought-resistant and holds great potential for commercial uses and to improve the environment.

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.”

Source: Walton Family Foundation

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Organic & Non-GMO Insights February 2021