Amid Iowa’s corn and soy, the stirring of a small-grain renaissance

Iowa is best known as the top corn-producing state in the nation, but a small and determined group of farmers is trying to chip away at that reputation by bringing back small grains like rye, oats, and triticale, Twilight Greenaway reports in FERN’s latest story, published in collaboration with Yale Environment 360.

The move is unusual because typically corn is rotated with soybeans, and farmers leave their soil barren for nearly half of 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,” the story says. “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.” When farmers plant small grains, however, the soil is kept covered by plant life, reducing erosion and water pollution.

The main proponent of this approach is 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),” Greenaway writes.

Carlson, who calls herself “just hillbilly enough that farmers trust me,” 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.

Until the 1950s, Iowa was the U.S. leader in oat production, harvesting more than 6 million acres annually for animal feed. 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.

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.”

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, Greenaway writes, 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.”

You can read the full story at Yale Environment 360 or here at FERN.