For decades, corn and soybeans have been the backbone of Midwestern agriculture, but a shifting economic situation and the effects of climate change may soon require farmers and policymakers to rethink the region’s investment in its two top crops.
A $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will help Indiana researchers explore alternatives that may be more suitable for the Midwest of the future.
The grant will support a five-year project called “Diverse Corn Belt: Resilient Intensification through Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture.” It will identify how the entrenched agriculture industry in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa can be modernized through crop diversification at the farm, landscape and market levels.
The agricultural system, in place for nearly a century, has encouraged corn and soybean farming through a network of federal protections and subsidies, but the move away from fossil fuels, climate change woes and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions have shown the current system leaves farmers vulnerable to changes outside their control and dependent on government largesse to survive.
“The dominant paradigm is obviously corn and soybeans at the exclusion of virtually all other potential agricultural land uses, and that is causing a host of issues,” said Professor Linda Prokopy, head of Purdue’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. “All of those problems, of course, are emphasized and shored up by federal policy, which greatly incentivizes growing corn and soybeans. So, it's really quite an irrational move for a farmer to not grow corn and soybeans now.”
The federal government spends about $40 billion a year in subsidies to farming businesses, including federally subsidized crop insurance, commodity payments, conservation payments and disaster payments every year.
Subsidies were created in order to help ensure a stable food supply, but those protections are offered for a limited selection of crops, called commodity crops, like corn, soybeans, cotton and rice.
Subsidies kick in when demand for a commodity crop drops. In 2020, government payments made up 39% of total net farming income.
Because of the safety net government subsidies provide, farmers in the Midwest have grown almost exclusively corn and soybeans used for feeding livestock and poultry.
That decision has caused increasing environmental, economic and social problems that reach beyond the states where the crops are grown.
Researchers have found environmental problems like air-quality-related health damages and excess nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural inputs causing increased harmful algae growth in local waterways and dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, where agricultural runoff from the Midwest eventually travels.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing economic and social problems for Midwestern farmers. Despite record soybean production and increased corn production in the U.S., farmer sentiment reached its lowest point since July 2020, when the full effect of the pandemic disruption was being felt.
In the latest Ag Economy Barometer, a monthly survey of agricultural producers by Purdue University, farmers reported being less optimistic about current and future conditions on their farms and the agricultural sector. In a span of four months, the percentage of farmers saying they expected worse financial performance from their farms this year jumped 10%, while the number of farmers expecting a better performance rose 4%. Farmers said they were concerned about inflation and rising prices for inputs.
Farmer sentiment has been trending downwards since October 2020, when it reached its peak due to federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program assistance. That aid helped farmers recover from commodity price declines and market supply chain disruptions.
Prokopy said the decline in the well-being of farmers involved in the current two-crop system has led to an increase in farmer suicides and bankruptcies and has made it more difficult for new and beginning farmers to take up the trade.
Prokopy believes the Midwestern agricultural system needs to diversify its cropland use beyond just growing corn and soybeans in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century.
“This helps farmers. It makes farmers more resilient. It makes them less dependent on government aid,” she said. “The more diverse things they grow, if there's particular one crop fails in a given year, you've got other things going on. And we know with the changing climate that there's a lot of evidence that corn won't actually do very well in this region. So, helping farmers make that transition before it's sort of essential gives them to time to do this well and in a way that works for them.”
The $10 million grant will allow Prokopy’s team, which includes agronomists, economists, entomologists, horticulturists and other experts from Purdue, to study which crops would work best in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa and find out what barriers exist to slow the adoption of diverse sustainable agricultural systems.
The team will speak to people involved in the agricultural sector at local, state and national levels in order to develop policy recommendations, data for farmers to use when considering diversification, and markets for diverse crops.
“What we really want to do is create visions for what the future could look like and have a collective buy-in across researchers and stakeholders of what that future could be and then what policies will help to support that,” Prokopy said. “We will be making sure that we are creating policies that actually will work and will support that transition and have the support and buy-in of many different types of people along the agricultural supply chain.”
Prokopy said one major change researchers will look at is getting Midwestern farmers to grow food for people rather than animals. Currently, most of the food eaten in the U.S. comes from California, where climate-induced drought and wildfires are expected to worsen in the coming decades.
“Obviously, increased forest fires and groundwater issues are going to challenge how we can continue to grow the food at the scale we currently grow it in California. So, I think that that speaks to the need to try to grow more horticultural food crops here. To do that we need more markets and other types of things,” she said.
Prokopy points to the success of Red Gold, an Indiana-based tomato processing company, as an example of how opening markets can lead to crop diversification that benefits Midwestern farmers. The company makes products like ketchup, diced tomatoes, pasta sauce, salsas and Bloody Mary mixes that are derived from tomatoes grown in 50 farms in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
“We grow a lot of tomatoes in Indiana because we have a market for them through Red Gold. So, how do we create more of those markets? We can also think about growing more small grains, things like oats and barley, other things that tend to be grown north of us in Canada,” Prokopy said.
Other options for diversification include perennial crops, like fruits and nuts, agroforestry and the introduction of grazing livestock in place of pollution-heavy confined animal feeding operations.
The key to the project, Prokopy said, will be to listen to the needs of farmers and market operators to find out what will benefit both the most. That knowledge could result in policy changes at the federal level if lawmakers listen to the project’s results.
“This is not an anti-corn, anti-soybean effort at all. It's just, ‘Let's do more than just corn and soybeans,’” Prokopy said. “I think farmers are obviously realizing that the writing is sort of on the wall for corn and soybeans. I think if nothing else, climate change is going to force it.”