As the climate changes, new efforts arise to diversify what’s grown in the Corn Belt

In 2014, Jason Federer began transitioning his Indiana farm to organic. The 4,000-acre operation had been in his family for three generations, and had always been managed with sustainability in mind. He remembers his father sprinkling in clover with the cash crops, long before the term “companion crop” made its way into the mainstream. Going organic meant diversifying his rotation, and instead of working with two or three cash crops he was suddenly working with an average of 10 annually—corn and soybeans, of course, but also wheat, rye, oats, barley, sunflowers, buckwheat, and peas, as well as cover crops like clover and alfalfa.

Federer is a part of a growing number of farmers, researchers and nonprofits working to transform the Midwestern corn and soybean belt into a more diverse cropping region. In October, the USDA gave $10 million to a new project at Purdue University designed to study how to help farmers like Federer as they diversify their farms.

Linda Prokopy, a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Purdue and the lead investigator on the project, says that diversifying beyond traditional corn and soybean systems can have both ecological and economic benefits for farmers, as well as help them adapt to climate change.

“Growing corn and soybeans exclusively in the Midwest is not sustainable in the long run,” she said. “As the climate continues to change, corn is not expected to yield very well in this area.” A diversity of crops means that as the weather changes, farmers will have a range of crops to fall back on if one fails. “The more diverse crops that a farm plants, the more resilient they’ll be” to the variable conditions produced by climate change, said Prokopy.

The Corn Belt region spans much of the Midwest, from Indiana to Nebraska, and from Minnesota to Kansas. Since the 1850s, this region has dominated corn production, and today accounts for more than 85 percent of the corn produced in the U.S. Much of this production is supported by federal subsidies; from 1995 to 2020, corn subsidies totaled over $100 billion.

The effects of climate change, however, are almost certain to reshape the future of farming in the region, with warmer temperatures and decreasing rainfall.

In addition to adaptability, a diversity of crops increases the amount of carbon and nitrogen stored in the soil, inhibits pests, improves water and soil quality and provides other ecological benefits like pollinator habitat.

The five-year project will get going in 2022 with a series of focus groups with farmers and other agricultural stakeholders. These sessions will help Prokopy’s team develop questions that farmers want answered — anything from the effects of crop diversification on pollinators to what kind of financial support is needed to develop markets for small grains and other crops. By the end of the project, Prokopy hopes to have a set of policy recommendations, developed in collaboration with farmers, to support diverse cropping in the region.

The Purdue project isn’t the only initiative in the region designed to help farmers diversify. Another USDA-funded effort, led by a coalition of groups, including Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and the Sustainable Food Lab, uses cost-sharing to entice farmers to incorporate small grains and cover crops into their rotation. In 2020, the program funded 120 farmers who planted 12,000 acres of small grains and 500 who planted 200,000 acres of cover crops, with a small bit of overlap among the two groups.

Matt Tentis, a third-generation farmer in Kellogg, Minnesota, who’s been working with the cost-share program since 2018, plants winter rye after his cash crops are harvested. He said that the program provided an important financial buffer in case he made mistakes while experimenting with new cropping systems. “It’s helping us to manage risk,” said Tentis. “It gave us an opportunity to ask questions and get the knowledge we needed to not make really costly mistakes.”

For Federer, a diverse crop rotation means better land stewardship. But it’s also been creative and fun. “It’s a whole different way of thinking,” he said, “I’m kind of rewiring my brain to think in those terms, and once you do and once it clicks together, it’s neat what you learn.”