Writing a blog like this is a privilege for so many reasons. One reason is that I get to be expressive in a way that neither scientists nor journalists are able to. So let me tell you this: there is a new study out from Iowa State University that is kind of blowing my mind.
In this study, Elke Brandes and her colleagues looked at the profitability of Iowa agricultural fields from 2010 to 2013. The results showed that while farms were profitable on the whole in that time, they also had small pockets of unprofitable production, areas where agronomic conditions lowered yields and raised costs enough to make them lose money. This is pretty common on almost any farm. Even the subtle variations of the flat croplands of the Midwest can result in net loss of profit on certain acres, but these losses are generally absorbed by net gain across the farm landscape. These net-loss acres represented a little under 2% of all Iowa cropland.
However, further analysis made for sobering news. The researchers projected the same data for 2015. The percentage of unprofitable acres last year jumped to 27% of all Iowa cropland, due to stagnant or falling crop prices and increasing input costs. Check out the maps below or go to the interactive map here.
So that’s the first mind-blowing bit, that conventional cropland is often so unprofitable. Plus, with no foreseeable shifts in crop prices or input costs, 2016 is unlikely to be any different. But the second mind-blowing part is actually quite hopeful.
The researchers first addressed the obvious question: if farmers are losing money on those acres, why keep farming them the same way? Well, the answer is that, in the end, they are not losing money. Federal crop insurance programs are responsible for the bulk of farm subsidization today, as it is now able to cover not just loss due to disasters, but also loss due to poor economic conditions. So, farmers can continue to lose money in the marketplace but make it up through publicly-funded insurance programs.
They then suggest an alternative: crop diversification. Essentially, the researchers propose that farmers with underperforming acreage transition those fields over to perennial crop production. This opens the door to numerous opportunities: production of biofuel crops; reduction of erosion; increased habitat for pollinators and pest predators; reduction of inputs and labor; and less damage to marginal fields that are both less productive and more fragile than prime farmland. All of these outcomes have strong potential to reduce costs and at least break even on those acres, improve environmental outcomes and provide many ecosystem services, and check the boxes of several USDA initiatives, from the Renewable Fuel Standard to the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
And that’s just to summarize what the researchers propose. They make the case for the production of perennial biofuel crops, but similar outcomes could also be had from other perennial crops, from mixed polyculture plantings to intermediate wheatgrass to forestry products. And returning these areas to very low-management wilderness areas could still provide many ecosystem services which, while difficult to put on a spreadsheet, could provide economic dividends down the road. These ecosystem services can also benefit more than just one farmer, making any public funds that go into conservation programs a better investment than just helping to balance individual farmers’ books.
Studies like this, that show that our current farming system is risky and unbalanced while also showing that a pro-economy and pro-environment food production system is possible, are incredibly important. I hope that we continue to see this type of analysis, and I will continue to stand up and cheer.