Iowa’s Farmers & American Eaters Need a National Discussion on Transforming US Agriculture

Lisa Schulte Moore sees the Iowa caucuses as an opportunity to spotlight innovative and “regenerative” farming methods that produce goods and services while also improving soil and water resources, unique habitats and pastoral countrysides.

Strips of native prairie grasses planted on Larry and Margaret Stone’s Iowa farm protect soil, water and wildlife. (Iowa State University/Omar de Kok-Mercado, CC BY-ND)

By Lisa Schulte Moore
The Conversation 

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses bring the state a lot of political attention during presidential election cycles. But in my view, even though some candidates have outlined positions on food and farming, agriculture rarely gets the attention it deserves.

As a scientist at Iowa’s land-grant university, I believe our state is at the forefront of redefining what agriculture could be in the U.S., and addressing environmental and economic challenges associated with the extensive monocultures that dominate our current system. I think these conversations should be at the forefront nationally. After all, everyone needs to eat, so all Americans have a stake in the future of farming.

Judging produce on opening day of the 2019 Iowa State Fair.
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

As Iowa Farms, So farms the Nation

Iowa is a leading global producer of corn, soy, pork, beef, eggs, ethanol, biodiesel, biochemicals and agricultural technology. Because it is home to just 3.2 million people, Iowa farmers export the vast majority of what they produce. Most multinational agricultural businesses have Iowa offices, and the state also has considerable influence on U.S. farm bill legislation.

Iowans are also acutely aware of the challenges of modern agriculture, which affect their lands and livelihoods. They include soil degradation, water contamination, flooding and loss of carbon and habitat for native species.

Farmers understand these effects, and many are actively working to reduce them, as operational, financial and social conditions allow. One example in which I am involved is the STRIPS project, in which scientists, farmers, land owners and others are partnering to test the effects of seeding narrow strips with native prairie plants within and around corn and soybean fields.

Over the last 13 years, we have shown that prairie is a valuable tool for protecting water supplies and providing habitat for wildlife, including pollinators. Planting just 10 percent of farm fields – often in the least productive zones – with stiff-stemmed native prairie grasses helps hold water and sediment in place, reducing erosion and nutrient loss from fields. The strips also contain flowering plants that support birds and insects, including pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.

Farmers describe the benefits of integrating small strips of prairie into row crop fields.

This approach can turn low-yielding acres into an opportunity to reduce use of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. Today there are nearly 600 acres of prairie strips on about 5,000 acres of cropland on 66 farms across in six Midwestern states. My colleagues and I expect these numbers to grow dramatically now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting prairie strips as a conservation tool.

Iowa State University scientists are working with industry to create sensors and computer models that enable farmers to manage their fields for improved outcomes. They also are developing supply chain tracking systems that will allow consumers to use a phone app to get information about the farm that grew or raised a product before they purchase it.

Many groups are involved in these efforts. The Iowa chapter of The Nature Conservancy is working with agricultural retailers on improving fertilizer management. Collaborations of farmers, crop breeders and food suppliers – facilitated by organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa – are fueling a renaissance in the production of small grains like oats and rye.

Speeding up the Transition

A decade ago, my colleagues and I brought national, state and local leaders together for a dialogue on the future of Iowa agriculture. While we did not capture all the details, we largely anticipated this gradual shift toward more economically and environmentally sustainable farming methods.

As we see it, macro-scale forces are driving this transition. Global commodity markets reward efficient production, requiring farmers to do more with less. Americans are demanding stronger action to protect the environment. Federal farm policies are increasingly encouraging conservation and soil health. And new technologies are enabling farmers to seed and treat crops more precisely and reduce harmful impacts such as nutrient pollution.

I believe a much brighter future is possible if government officials, agricultural businesses and farm, commodity and environmental organizations can unite around a transformative goal. For example, the national, state and local leaders we gathered to discuss the future of Iowa agriculture proposed an initiative to double the full value – monetary and non-monetary – of our state’s agricultural economy over 25 years.

With widespread support, such an effort could usher in a new era of economic and environmental wealth in Farm Belt states. It would start with investing in regenerative systems – farming methods that produce agricultural goods and services while also improving soil and water resources, unique habitats and pastoral countrysides. And it would require simultaneous investments in rural infrastructure, new businesses and local and regional markets.

An Alternative Future

What would this transformed system look like? By the 2028 Iowa caucuses, dynamic public-private partnerships of farmers, landowners and others could be working to increase crop diversity and rotations, expand conservation practices and develop necessary markets and infrastructure, such as rural broadband.

More farmers would be planting cover crops like winter rye to help their fields retain nutrients, improve soil health and control weeds. Those who raise corn and soybeans could partner with neighboring livestock producers to grow winter crops for grazing, leaving fewer fields bare.

Cattle grazing on cover crops in Sac County, Iowa.
(NRCS/SWCS/Lynn Betts, CC BY)

Surveys show that Americans are willing to pay for initiatives that provide multiple benefits from farmlands. Reinvestments in agriculture, renewable energy, rural development and conservation programs could be funded philanthropically and through the U.S. farm bill.

By the 2048 caucuses, Iowa and other farm states where farmers mainly raise commodity crops like corn and soybeans could be producing a wide variety of goods and services, including annual and perennial grains, fiber and biomass crops, livestock, wind and solar energy, ethanol, biodiesel, fruits, vegetables, nuts and hops. Managing farm landscapes for carbon, nutrients, water and wildlife could be as central to farming as crop management is today.

Easy access to rural broadband, plus advances in sensors, artificial intelligence and robotics, would enable highly precise nutrient management, pest and disease control and manure handling.

Small towns could be ringed with agrihoods – planned communities built around working farms and community gardens. They would be vibrant and desirable places to live, offering high-tech jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, an affordable cost of living and outdoor recreation opportunities.

National Conversation

Agriculture is always changing. U.S. elected leaders hold substantial influence over this process through their public platforms and ability to make policy.

A decade ago, my colleagues and I saw a choice for U.S. agriculture: incremental improvement, or a push for transformational change that would improve communities and landscapes in farm country. The incremental approach is not moving quickly enough, and rural communities and landscapes are suffering as a result.

Transformational change could look like the future I have described. How do we make it happen? Iowa and other farm states are ready for that conversation.

Lisa Schulte Moore is professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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16 comments for “Iowa’s Farmers & American Eaters Need a National Discussion on Transforming US Agriculture

  1. Hide Behind
    November 8, 2019 at 23:04

    I and many of my small acre organic farmers do not think so highly of American farmers, there are far to many who knowingly used GMO and specialized fertilizers for GMO knowing full well the dangers to their customers
    To use the term customers I shouldn’t consumers of their products, because their real “customers” are Corporate entities.
    Farm produce of large scale farmers is subsidized, from special very low tax rates with multiple deductions, too a special exclusion from what are called hobby farmers that says they do not have to show a profit but 1bout of every 7 years.
    Then agricultural production and sale prices are set by Corporate Food chain stores by regions In Partnership with Government Agricultural Agencies and their bureaucrats who are not just in hip pockets of Corporate Ag but heads have worked for firms such as Montsanto, and the crooked State and Fed elected who Jerry rig legislation in return for Black money and Campaign Contributions and keep irrigation cost low even upon foreign owned Farms which are in violations as to size of farms allowed, 160 total acres, a process that favors Corporate Farmers leaving small acerage farmers recieving ever shrinking water supply.
    When one mentions farmers, why are those who call themselves farmers that plant 10’s of thousands of acres in corn, corn grown specifically for biofuels additives, not for human consumption
    Corn and soy for export only not for domestic consumption and lobbied Congress to grow ever more GMO crops , your eating far more GMO items than you know about, and recieving a higher price due to price of production and to have higher Tarrifs on imported foods.
    In Western Washington Stateapples, wine grapes, hops vegetables and potato farmers irrigate their fields directly from Columbia River Waters below The most irrated and chemicly poisonous facility in US, Hanford Nucler power plant.
    Columbia River Waters pass through two of top 20 US citiesnthat have highest rad count in nation.
    They have to use Columbia River Waters instead of wells as the huge underground aquifer is so polluted it is hazardous in extreme to human life.
    The only thing keeping whole River is amounts of water flow, dilution as Atomic Energy and Farmers call it.
    Next lets talk ” PRIONS” and the ever growing numbers of people who suffer their I’ll effects from eating beef, pork, lamb, chickens, turkeys and ever increasing numbers of Zombie Deer , Elk, Moose, and bear, rabbits and squirrels.
    Prions as in MAD Cow Disease and is found as deep as ten feet below ground throughout US.
    Ask Farmers why they now butcher Beef at aroundb18 months of age instead of 2 to e years they used to butcher at, and the .eat from from in front of front quarters can no longer be sold if mechanicly seperated except as your pets food.
    Take off those Rose Colored Glasses handed out by Corporate Agricultural Controllers within government Agencies, and the damn farmers who profit by them.
    Please, Please, Pretty Plese, do research on Prions before info gets disappeared from web.
    If not for yourself, you may already have shortened life and use of mind, but for your decendents if you have them, and if not, for worlds children.

    • Hide Behind
      November 8, 2019 at 23:28

      Odd I reply to own message, NOT.
      Forgive spelling and syntax mistakes as my compassion and passions do not always control fingers, too much beef, maybe.
      But I left out the fact that today Prions are found almost all farm grown produce, and waters you drink.
      Veggies, in yuppy slang, if fertilized by manure and animal refuse, bones and hooves, or up river by irrigation use sludge of animal and human waste the water tables and water runoff spread them.
      The vast average of Western plains is covered by prions blown from commercial animal farms dust, carried then by cows grazing and same goes for wildlife.
      You cannot kill prions be very extreme cold and only by extreme heat that turns item into ashes.
      Check Euro stats and recent findings by CDC and Environmental Protection Agency studies.
      To think about: PEA and Nuclear Regulators do not eliminate dangers, they pass what is Permissable Levels, and that is not of just illness but of allowable percentage of deathsFirms such as Monsanto and Pharmas who inject roads and hormones into our food meats and birds, and their employees do not care if you live or die, it’s the payday that matters.
      Deliberate ignorance is US greatest disease.

  2. GMCasey
    November 8, 2019 at 14:58

    It would seem that indigenous cultures realize intuitively how Nature works best. We need more power to the indigenous and less to the corporate.

  3. Tedder
    November 8, 2019 at 14:18

    No discussion of agriculture can proceed without addressing the use/overuse of petrochemicals as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Climate disruption cannot be assuaged without agriculture free of these kinds of inputs. Organic farming and gardening has to be a major part of the solution.
    Additionally, no discussion of food can proceed without addressing the consumption/over-consumption of meat in the national diet and the confined animal raising operations necessary to supply that diet. Again, animal husbandry is out of balance and a major contributor of climate disruption. We have to return our meat-eating to a balance that accommodates agriculture, not drives it.

  4. Mary Saunders
    November 8, 2019 at 12:17

    This subject needs continuing attention in this venue. This is one of the few sites where a level-headed discussion can happen. The environmental and human-toxins issue is important where trust for anything government- or big-corporation has been lost. Credibility with a huge cohort of persons harmed by this unholy alliance cannot be stomped out with censorship, the hertofore and continuing strategy of the bigs.. I attended a meeting of the Oregon state agriculture board with a large Family Farmers badge so it would be obvious how I found out about the meeting. I directly lobbied a farmer who was worried about run-off into a river or tributary. I gave him information on how Paul Stamets made filters out of mycelium and reduced run-off from his cattle operation compared to a previous owner’s operation, to the point where inspectors asked to see what he was doing to clean the water. By the time big operators have corrupted government, government has flak-catchers to prevent input from harmed individuals. It is too late. It is necessary for harmed groups to go straight at the corps involved. I learned by working with groups fighting recombinant growth hormone in dairy products, in Oregon, thanks to Rick North, whose political savvy was beyond impressive. Fighting dirty water in Oregon has produced some amazingly canny activists, with some wins, and a distressing number of losses. My interaction with the conventional grower, mentioned earlier, was hopeful for both of us, though I have moved from Oregon and did not follow up in attending ag board meetings. Persons wanting to prevent harm close to where they live can go to meetings where agency-captures have happen. Even if they shut lay people out, sometimes the protests outside are more colorful and entertaining and can get local coverage.

    • Mark Stanley
      November 10, 2019 at 15:54

      Yes Mary, Paul Stamets and crew are doing some remarkable original practical research with mycelium. If anyone deserves funding, he does.
      As to the big question here: Big Brother/Big AG just keep plowing forward, knowing full well that their ally is the mediocrity of the public. What most common American people choose to put in their shopping carts I rarely even consider food. Standing in line at the store is like a freak show, in that I don’t want to look but I do anyway. Changing peoples habits is next to impossible.
      The author here means well, but she is operating within a semi-defined system. If she spoke out too radically she might get fired.
      I wonder what the average percentage of Iowa acreage is used for GMO crops?
      I do support farmers. (I have a few cows and honey bees and overalls myself)

  5. Dan Aquilina
    November 8, 2019 at 11:36

    Iowa is a Monsanto nightmare! It owned the state if Iowa. Anything being proposed by their legislators will just feed the nightmare even more. Small farmers are doomed to requirements enforced by Monsanto and other Big Agra businesses. They can’t even sell their livestock for slaughter unless they have followed Big Agra guidelines. Small farmers have been screwed by them.

    I wouldn’t trust any suggestion being promoted by Big Agra and their whore politicians.

  6. geeyp
    November 8, 2019 at 02:23

    This is the vital issue of our time. So good to see real tomatoes pictured instead of these plastic tomatoes that we all get stuck with (with cores in the middle). Hard cores = fake GMO crap. Farm Aid has done yeoman’s effort to help people ‘s awareness of the differences that taking care of the soil and having happy cows makes to our food supply. The farmer works extremely hard to help the people of the world and needs much more credit from the corporate useless eaters. When you see a farmer, thank them for their service.

    • geeyp
      November 8, 2019 at 02:31

      ADDENDUM: When I mentioned cores, I’m not referring to the green stem on top. I mean a hard, center section that runs all down through the middle of the tomato. Thanks.

  7. November 7, 2019 at 18:57

    For farmers in Iowa and elsewhere telling them they need to be more productive and environmentally aware must appear to them like carrying coal to Newcastle. You cannot be a good farmer without caring for the environment for that is an essential ingredient of being a good farmer.

    The rise in productivity of farming in this country is extraordinary benefitting every other endeavor by freeing men and women to engage in other activities.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, roughly half of our population lived on farms producing food for themselves and the rest of America. Today, the number of farmer’s to feed the rest of us and export food is less than two percent. Farms have gotten bigger and the numbers required to work the soil fewer. This means, in addition to feeding the rest of us, it frees manpower to engage in other activities to raise our standard of living.

    America has been blessed by plentiful land and rainfall but also blessed by the visionary statesmen of the nineteenth century who created land grant colleges with agricultural and mechanical emphasis, ensuring that scientific discoveries could be quickly adapted by farmers through such means as the agricultural extension services. When I was a kid I can remember the agricultural agent dropping by to chat with my father in the field, maybe giving him a handout or a few new things that dad might find useful.

    Agricultural in America is an amazing story and the abundance of jokes about farmers as hayseeds brought some resentment but more chuckles from the farmers where we lived.

    As to all the razzle dazzle of the writer, she can be sure that farmers will listen very carefully to what she and her associates have to say and more often than not welcome all the help they can get. There is always a better way of doing things.

    • bardamu
      November 8, 2019 at 15:42

      It surely does, Herman. But the fact remains that most commercial agriculture, in Iowa as elsewhere, has been and remains immensely destructive to soil.

      The point here is not or shouldn’t be to blame farmers for the errors of a system in which they have become enmeshed, but any farmer who deep plows regularly or who applies herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, or synthetic NPK to land sacrifices soil to a chance at short-term profit–or momentary economic viability, since many people are just treading water financially while their soil systems collapse.

      The economic pressures that drive people to this are very real and very critical for a lot of people. Yes, GMOs and synthetics can produce pretty-though-hollow crops for a few years to help pay down loans, and yes monocultures that deplete soil do also facilitate mechanized harvests. But these practices, now implemented by a majority of farmers in the US, destroy soil. Insofar as these practices continue, we had might as well acknowledge that Newcastle has run short of coal.

      The error is by no means exclusively nor even mostly that of farmers, however. Farmers respond to a mandate from a distant market that fluctuates by rhythms quite contrary to local ecologies. If broccoli grows well this season, the price does not rise with the quality, but drops because of the quantity. The farmer pays for the land, for equipment, and for necessities in dollars, and so he or she has strong motivation to count the value of crops in dollars and direct activity towards that, even in persistent violation of the local ecology.

      Here in California, I have watched farmers cut and torch vast orchards of moderately healthy fruit trees and pull out five-year grape vines–vines just at the point of major production. Now you know you’re not watching happy farmers when someone does that. Those are the vicissitudes of a market, and that market decides as it does because it cannot see those fields or those plants. Nor can it see the people who tend them.

      There are ways to grow food regeneratively that are extremely efficient when measured in terms of nutrition per acre. But these tend to take time and human labor, particularly in transition. All of us need the land cared for. This should not be just something the farmer is charged to take care of working against the penalties of the market system.

    • November 9, 2019 at 04:05

      To Bardamu, , I’m afraid I am out of my league when speaking about both the economics and science regarding agriculture. I do share concerns about genetically modified seeds and am ignorant so far as the effects of chemicals applied to enhance productivity on our health. Certainly chemicals should be applied as judiciously as possible. I am also aware of the weak position of farmers in controlling prices and the vicissitudes of the markets for farmers.

      But I do wonder or question what is meant by commercial agriculture since it is all commercial unless you are talking about private gardens and your statement that commercial agriculture is “immensely destructive of the soil”. The increases in per acre production over a very long time certainly does not support that.

      Say I am a skeptic about some claims and I overreached about farmers and their dedication to protecting the environment, because while it is in their interest to do so, their desire for bigger and better crops can cause them to act “to the contrary”. But when I walk through a supermarket I am still amazed at the abundance and variety of foods it produces and despite the disclaimers how healthy a diet they provide for the rest of us.

      All in all, an amazing enterprise and like all of us a recipients of this abundance, farmers need to take care to protect their and our environment. And we, as we have done in the past, come to their rescue when they are at the mercy of economic forces and nature.

      Thank you for the gentle response and strong points. I was raised on a farm, didn’t like the backbreaking work, but wax romantic now that it is far, far behind me.

  8. Paul
    November 7, 2019 at 18:53

    I would like to have seen mention of GMOs and glyphosate in this discussion. These are two items contaminating our food supply, other species, and the soil.

    • November 8, 2019 at 14:29

      I agree with you, Paul. Any article addressing this topic without the mention of GMOs and glyphosate seems irrelevant, no matter how wonderful it may sound. Neoliberals must love this writer.

    • Lily
      November 10, 2019 at 02:50

      There are enough natural ways of protecting crops which have been approved of and which are being applied by many organic farmers in BRD. But then there are the agricultural lobbies and their connection to the polticians. Big Pharma. Monsanto, Bayer, Hoechst, IG Farben define the rules and destroy the earth.

      The same goes with antbiotics which could be replaced by phages. But not in the west. Some western people suffering from illnesses which can not be treated by any known antibiotics any more because of an aquired resistance are treated in Russia where this treatment is common.

  9. Clif
    November 7, 2019 at 17:46

    I’ve only read the first paragraph but I am so pleased, and proud of the tradition of activism it represents, to see an a academic unapologetically pushing an agenda.

Comments are closed.