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Corn and soybean crops have been good to farmers in the American Midwest and Plains. But these staple crops have taken a toll on the very earth they draw nourishment from. Now, a new generation of farmers is looking underground to try to replenish their soils in a way that both restores nutrients and reduces chemical runoff into the environment. “Mainstream agriculture, they just don’t get it,” says North Dakota farmer Jerry Doan. “You have got to feed the biology of the soil.” Some farmers are experimenting with growing cover crops on their fields. Devoting valuable land to new crops can be risky for producers, whose thin margins make them reluctant to make big changes if their yields are going to fall, even temporarily. But in some communities, such as Washington County, Iowa, farmers are taking the leap together. Producers tour each others’ farms and readily share their experiences, says Darrell Steele, a farmer who’s experimenting with 10 acres of barley, which he mixes into the feeds for his 2,000 hogs. “We all do our own thing but it’s teamwork, too,” Mr. Steele says.
Shovel in hand, Duane Hager heads for his cornfield and digs up a shovelful of dirt, revealing wriggling earthworms. Although a pelting rain has soaked his gray T-shirt in seconds, not a single puddle lies in the field or in the cow pasture beyond – a sign of vigorous, uncompacted earth.
“If you have soil that is healthy and balanced, it translates into your animals,” says the Kellogg, Minn., dairy farmer.
Across the American Midwest and Plains, small groups of farmers are looking at their most important resource – the soil – and contemplating big change. Their grandfathers and great grandfathers planted trees for windbreaks and planted along the contours of the slopes rather than up and down them to reduce soil erosion. Their fathers began leaving crop stubble in their fields to improve moisture retention, and some gave up tilling the soil altogether. Now, the new generation of producers is looking underground to try to replenish their soils, and they’re doing it by growing something in addition to corn and soybeans. The new farm bill, which President Trump signed on Dec. 20, includes measures that could help popularize the idea.
“Mainstream agriculture, they just don’t get it,” says Jerry Doan, standing by a mix of 20-plus cover crops from low-lying legumes to tall stalks of millet on his farm in Sterling, N.D. “You have got to feed the biology of the soil.”
It’s an international problem, with a third of the world’s soils already degraded, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, due to everything from erosion and salinization to untreated urban waste and mining. Here in the United States, a big concern is commercial agriculture, where evidence is growing that decades of an exclusive corn-soybean rotation has caused farmland to lose nutrients and its ability to hold and filter water.
The effects reach far beyond the farm to waterways and the grocery store. Because farmland doesn’t hold the nitrites and nitrates produced from fertilizers and herbicides, they leach into the water and find their way as far as the Gulf of Mexico, creating state-sized areas of low or no oxygen, which kills fish and other marine life. What’s more, the commercial vegetables at the grocery store have fewer nutrients than in the 1950s, according to several studies, in part because the soil has fewer nutrients they can take up.
Farmers have tried to minimize the environmental damage by using GPS and soil analysis to fertilize only areas of fields that need it and by creating buffer strips between crops and ditches and waterways, so the nitrates and nitrites stay put.
But “we are not going to fix water quality with just fertilizer [reduction],” says Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit helping producers build resilient farms and communities. “We need other products with more roots.”
In the Midwest and Plains, that means finding something to grow in addition to corn and soybeans.
“We’re always going to grow corn and soybeans but we need other stuff,” says University of Iowa water expert Chris Jones. “We need a third crop in Iowa really badly.”
Farmers are experimenting with growing cover crops on their fields, such as barley or oats, during the winter season. The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., is pushing perennials, such as Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass it developed and trademarked. That way farmers wouldn’t have to plant new crops every spring. Still others are calling for a return to a mix of animal and crop agriculture that used to predominate in rural America.
“My grandfather started contouring, my dad started no-till, so I wanted to do this,” says Darrell Steele, a farmer in Iowa's Washington County, who’s experimenting with 10 acres of barley, which he mixes into the feeds for his 2,000 hogs. “But when you put these things in, you take a hit. In the off-season, the ground is on the couch eating Ho Hos. But when you start putting this stuff in, it’s like telling the ground to run a marathon. It’s going to stumble and fall at first.”
That’s a problem for many producers, whose thin margins make them reluctant to make big changes if their yields are going to fall, even temporarily. Another challenge: Making the switch can be costly. For example, continuous no-till and low-till farming, which decades of studies have shown improve the soil and reduce costs, is still used on only 1 in every 5 acres of US cropland, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One big reason: It requires farmers to invest in completely new equipment.
Then there’s the cultural barrier: Farmer communities tend to be conservative.
“That peer pressure, that is huge,” says Kristin Brennan, state soil health specialist at the Minnesota office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “No one wants to be the weird farmer with lots of Kernza.”
Still, there are exceptions.
“Where we see it really taking off is where you have a community of farmers,” says Ms. Brennan. “We call them hotspots.”
Washington County, which has the most acres of cover crops of any Iowa county, appears to be one of those communities. Farmers tour each others’ farms. Mr. Steele, the local hog producer, says he tried barley on the advice of a fellow farmer. At least once a week, he talks to Steve Berger, a Washington County farmer who has gained national attention for his use of no-till cover crops. “We all do our own thing but it’s teamwork, too.”
“In this neighborhood you just have a bunch of really conservation-minded folks,” says Tony Maxwell, a district conservationist for the NRCS.
Provisions of the new farm bill, which encourages farmers to plant cover crops and use soil-sensitive crop rotations and grazing techniques, suggest that awareness of the problem is growing. “We had a lot of strong champions this past year for legislation related to soil health,” says Alyssa Charney, a senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of grass-roots sustainability groups. “There's a growing interest for sure.”
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.