Where corn is king, the stirrings of a renaissance in small grains

Breaking with the industrial model of corn and soybeans, a growing number of Iowa farmers are putting oats, rye, and other small grains into their crop rotation, a switch that is regenerating soils, cleaning up waters, and providing benefits to family farms.

To the untrained eye, Jeremy Gustafson’s 1,600-acre farm looks like all the others spread out across Iowa. Gazing at his conventional corn and soybean fields during a visit in June, I was hard-pressed to say where his neighbor’s tightly planted row crops ended and Gustafson’s began.

But what distinguished this vast farm in Boone, Iowa, was a thin, 16-acre strip of oats Gustafson had planted in a loop around the barn. At the time, the chest-high oats were at the “milk stage.” When Gustafson squeezed the grains embedded in the feathery grass between his thumb and forefinger, they released a tiny dollop of white liquid, a sign that they would be ready to harvest in about a month.

Oats and other “small grains” like rye and triticale stand out in Iowa — the nation’s number one producer of corn, a crop that covered more than 90 million U.S. acres in 2016 and was worth more than $51 billion. As is the case all over the Corn Belt, most Iowa corn is planted in rotation with another ubiquitous crop: soybeans. That Gustafson is willing to plant something other than corn and soy in Iowa makes him an outlier.

“I’m doing this for the soil,” says Gustafson, 40, and that’s a bigger deal than it may sound.

The majority of conventional farmers leave their soil barren for nearly half the year, exposing it to erosion in a state where some townships see as many as 64 tons of soil per acre run into waterways each year. Along with that soil come the remnants of fertilizer applications, in the form of nitrates and phosphorus, which foul drinking water, choke out aquatic life, and spur toxic algae blooms. Des Moines Water Works, the state’s largest water utility, spends an estimated $1.2 million per year to remove nitrates from drinking water to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency safety levels.

To begin to counter that tide, Gustafson and a growing number of farmers are working to keep small grains and other plants in the soil year-round. Many say they decided to take this approach after meeting Sarah Carlson, a 38-year-old, no-nonsense agronomist from rural Illinois, who has spent the last decade alternately challenging and supporting hundreds of farmers from a small office in Ames, Iowa, with her colleagues at Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). Their goal is to help producers diversify, improve their soil, and maintain autonomy within a landscape dominated by a handful of powerful agribusinesses.

Sarah Carlson, director of Practical Farmers of Iowa, which advocates for small grains. (Photo by Blake Hendrix / The Walton Family Foundation).

Carlson, who describes herself as “just hillbilly enough that farmers trust me,” envisions a kind of small-grain renaissance that could begin to drive a powerful wedge into the commodity corn and soybean system. Carlson and PFI have been instrumental in expanding cover crops in the state from around 10,000 acres in 2009 to around 600,000 acres in 2016 — a relative drop in the bucket at 2.6 percent of the total acreage planted, but a notable rise nonetheless.

Now, Carlson and PFI want to see a total of 1 million acres of small grains planted in Iowa in the next decade. The benefits would be substantial: Small grains are “cool season” crops that are planted in the spring and provide coverage for the soil in the wet months, reducing erosion and soaking up excess nutrients that might otherwise end up in waterways. And since they’re harvested in July, farmers can then plant warm-season cover crops in the summer that develop robust root systems. This helps the soil function as a vital living ecosystem that retains more water, stores more carbon, and requires less fertilizer to grow food.

In the context of Iowa’s rich farming history, growing small grains isn’t unusual. Until the 1950s, Iowa was the U.S. leader in oat production, harvesting more than 6 million acres for animal feed. Along with crops like alfalfa, those oats were fed to livestock on diverse family farms. But as concentrated livestock operations began to dominate the landscape and farms consolidated, small grains nearly disappeared. In 2016, Iowa grew a mere 120,000 acres of oats — a 98 percent decline from a half-century ago.

Gusafson and his family held on longer than most. “When we ground all our own feed, we’d use the oats [we grew] in the ration,” he says. Now, Gustafson raises around 3,000 hogs at a time for a company that dictates the animals’ diets. The local grain elevator also stopped buying oats, meaning he would have had to transport them at least an hour — and the shipping costs just weren’t worth it.

The loss of oats and hay on the landscape was more than cosmetic. In fact, the Corn Belt’s biggest environmental challenges can be tied to that shift. “We have continuing problems with water quality, soil degradation and soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat,” says Matt Liebman, the H.A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. “Those are all things that extended crop rotations with small grains and forage crops like alfalfa can help address.”

Since 2001, Liebman has overseen a 22-acre field experiment at Iowa State that provides compelling evidence of the benefits of small grains.  Results of the study, published in 2012 and 2015, compared a corn/soy rotation with three- and four-year rotations that included corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa, and clover cover crops. While the four-crop rotation yielded slightly better results than the three-crop rotation, the most remarkable change could be seen between two and three crops.

According to Liebman’s latest calculations, the three-crop rotation required 86 percent less mineral nitrogen fertilizer, which in turn led to fewer nitrous oxide emissions and 96 percent less herbicide use. The resulting soil also contained markedly more carbon matter — another benefit in an era of climate change — and reduced soil erosion by 25 percent. In addition, water that ran off the corn fields in the spring contained around half the nitrates, meaning less pollution flowing into streams and drinking water sources.

PFI’s members have also cut fertilizer use dramatically after adding small grains. “That’s an expense they can control, because every time corn prices go up, fertilizer prices go up,” Carlson says. “The system will squeeze the farmer however it can, so controlling costs on the farm is the only way to stay ahead of the game.”

PFI was founded during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when many families were driven off the land. “[PFI’s founders] realized farmers need to have more power, need to do their own on-farm research to be better decision-makers and informed consumers of fertilizers, pesticides, and seed,” says Carlson. She sees small grains as part of that movement.

At the same time, PFI views itself as a “big tent” with an apolitical stance that brings together more than 3,000 members — from organic vegetable farmers to large corn and soy growers. They conduct research and gather data to discuss and share with their peers,  and they travel, often hundreds of miles, to visit one another’s farms for field days throughout the summer.

Farmer Tom Frantzen talks at a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day about efforts to replace corn-based hog feed with rye, barley, and oats. Photo by Twilight Greenaway.

“I compare [PFI] to church,” says Gustafson. “You sit and listen to the sermon, then you talk for 20 minutes. The people at PFI events are more open than any farmers I’ve known.” This is especially remarkable at a time when “most farmers now keep information to themselves: If you’re my neighbor, you’re my competition.”

When Carlson approached Gustafson about growing small grains in 2015, he was understandably cautious. Today’s commodity farm culture doesn’t allow for much deviation. Most corn and soy farmers plant their seeds when the soil hits a precise temperature, in rows that are calibrated by GPS-controlled tractors. They apply the same fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides using data collected by the same sophisticated, expensive machines. Here, nearly every plant that doesn’t produce soybeans or corn is seen as a weed. And farmers can lose leases when neighbors complain about messy fields.

The founders of PFI wanted to provide an alternative to this dominant culture and stem the tide of people leaving rural America — a goal Carlson shares, having grown up with first-hand experience of that trend in rural Illinois. Following a stint in the Peace Corps, where she saw the impact of technology on farmers in Ecuador, Carlson studied sustainable agriculture at Iowa State and was introduced to PFI in 2007 while writing her master’s thesis. Since then, she has spent her career focused on how to reverse the thinning populations in the Midwest’s rural communities — and the accompanying isolation many of the remaining farmers experience.

When Carlson learned that Iowa State’s long-term study found that small grains require more labor and help spread that labor out beyond the compressed spring-fall schedule for corn and soy farming, it lit a spark in her. “That means more young people have a way to come back and find a space on a 2,000-acre corn/soy farm,” she said.

As the average age of the American farmer — now nearing 60 — rises, farms will continue to consolidate, requiring fewer people. But small grains could be a viable way to keep the next generation engaged, and keep more farmers on the land. “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’s experience underscores this sentiment. The Dunkerton, Iowa farmer grew corn and soybeans on 300 acres while working full-time as an engineer. Then, three years ago, he decided to diversify his operation and farm full-time. He and his wife Jane “went back to square one,” he says.

“We asked: What can we do to bring renewed health back into our soil,” says Canfield. “Because ultimately that is where healthy plants come from, and then healthy plants lead to healthy animals, which lead to healthier people.”

Earl Canfield hauling a bag of oats that he sells to other farmers for animal feed. Photo by Twilight Greenaway.

Incorporating oats, alfalfa, heirloom popcorn, and some livestock allowed the Canfields to bring their children into the operation in a new way. When I visited, Andrew, 14, and Matthew, 18, were grinding oats, soy, corn, and supplements for animal feed and preparing to ship it to farmers.

“Before, there were limited ways that the kids could get involved,” says Canfield. “Now, it’s a wonderful training ground for them.”

Despite the benefits to their farm, the Canfields, like Gustafson, are going out on a limb. The first year they raised oats, they planned to sell them to a local mill operated by Grain Millers Inc. in St. Ansgar, Iowa. But when harvest came, the mill was no longer buying. It had filled its orders in Canada.

The Canfields put the oats in storage and gradually began building a market for their crops as animal feed. It’s working — but slowly. When I visited the farm in June, they still had a sizable portion in storage.

Small grains don’t command the high prices that corn and soy do. But Iowa State research has shown that diverse farms can be profitable — mainly because they invest significantly less on fertilizer, fuel, and herbicides in the year after they plant small grains. But the small-grain year itself can be tough on farmers’ cash flow and requires that those who do make the shift can find a consistent market for their small grains.

Grain Millers Inc. began buying more food-grade oats from Iowa after Carlson reached out five years ago, and the quantity they’re buying has increased steadily in recent years. But it’s still tiny compared to the Canadian market.

When Carlson isn’t fielding phone calls from farmers looking for advice or moral support—as many as 50 a week in the busy season — she’s often strategizing about how to get major food and beverage corporations to see the benefits of diverse rotations.

For the last several years, the Sustainable Food Lab (SFL) — a global network that includes some of the world’s largest food and beverage companies — has been working with PFI to involve public and private entities in the small grain initiative. Two groups created a small grains pilot program with farmers in Iowa and Minnesota during the 2016 growing season. And this summer, SFL brought dozens of executives from Unilever and other major food and beverage companies to Gustafson’s farm, among others, to get a first-hand look at cover crops and small grains in farmers’ rotations.

“The thing that’s so completely elegant about improving the corn and soybean system by adding a small grain is that, if it’s successful, it’s a market-based solution,” says Elizabeth Reaves, a senior program director at SFL.

But it will only take off if some companies begin thinking about not just the individual crops they buy, but farming systems as a whole.

“We’re dealing with a highly productive, incredibly efficient system,” says Reaves. Even as corn and soy prices have dropped in recent years, “farmers can continue to do what they’re doing and still probably grow 200 bushels of corn each year for a long time. And then you have companies who are in a similar kind of brittle situation — they just buy corn or soybeans.”

In the short term, Carlson is encouraging farmers to grow small grains as seed for cover crops. The state just began offering farmers who grow cover crops a $5-per-acre discount on crop insurance. An estimated 15 million acres of cover crops will be needed to clean up the water in the state — or a 20-fold increase from current levels. According to Carlson, it will take 400,000 acres of small grains to produce all that seed.

Whatever their reasons, farmers who do opt to grow small grains have a chance to break from the dominant agricultural system in other ways. David Weisberger, a recent graduate of Iowa State’s Sustainable Agriculture program, has spent the last few years visiting small grain farmers who have found themselves recalling landscapes of old, trying out new kinds of equipment, and welcoming rare birds and other wildlife back to their farms. After years of growing the same two crops, “[they] enjoy doing something different and exploring new ideas,” he says. “There’s a creativity that comes back into things.”

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In the lead photo by Twilight Greenaway, a farmer examines a rye cover crop planted within a field of soybeans in Midburn, Iowa. Produced with FERN, this article first appeared in Yale Environment 360. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org. Support for FERN’s Midwestern reporting is provided in part by a grant from The McKnight Foundation.