Forever Green & Highly Efficient Agriculture

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To understand why the Forever Green Initiative is so important to the future of Minnesota’s landscape, one has to consider this: there is a big difference between agricultural productivity and agricultural efficiency. In states like Minnesota, the spectacular productivity of our corn-soybean system is evident: bin busting yields are the norm. But there’s a lot of waste underlying all that productivity.

“We just don’t think the current system is efficient,” says Don Wyse, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics and the co-director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.

One of the reasons this production system is so inefficient is that it relies on a raising a few annual summer crops, which cover the land only a few months out of the year. That means for eight months or more, around half of Minnesota lacks any living roots or green ground cover — creating a long bare season. During this brown period, the land is particularly vulnerable to erosion and precipitation runs off the land, carrying with it fertilizers and other chemicals that were not used during the growing season. That’s one reason nitrogen pollution of Minnesota’s water is at such extremely high levels, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Wyse says such a system is not only wasteful but doesn’t utilize agriculture’s ability to provide key ecosystem services such as keeping pollutants out of water, building soil health, sequestering greenhouse gases and providing wildlife habitat. It also limits economic options for farmers.

“If you stick with the crops that we have now, which are all summer annuals, you won’t be able to produce those ecosystem services,” says Wyse on LSP’s Ear to the Ground podcast. “But if you want a more efficient system, one that produces these ecosystem services, we have to fund the development of a different type of plant system.”

Such a system would cover the land 12 months out of the year. We had this year-round armor back in the day—it was called the tallgrass prairie. We will probably never see the return of such a diverse, sustainable ecosystem on a widespread basis. But Wyse and the other researchers working on the Forever Green Initiative believe they can bring some “functional diversity” back into the landscape by integrating soil-friendly annuals and perennials into the traditional corn-soybean rotation.

“No, these are not native plants, but they are certainly a step forward in providing these ecosystem services,” says Wyse. “Agriculture, I don’t care what it is, it’s a huge human footprint. But we might be able to modify that footprint in a way that makes the system more efficient and more environmentally sound.”

The idea of protecting the land during the corn and soybean “off season” is nothing new to anyone who is familiar with cover crops. In fact, recent attention to rebuilding farmland’s soil health has generated some excitement over the role small grains, brassicas and other “low value” plant systems can play in bringing resiliency back to our fields. But as a recent Forever Green report illustrates, this initiative is trying to take cover cropping several steps ahead agronomically and economically.

And we’re not exactly talking about plant systems that are household names in the Upper Midwest. For example, field pennycress, an annual crop that overwinters, can be seeded after corn or soybeans are harvested in the fall. It provides protection for soil during the fall, winter and spring and produces high-value oil and protein meal from unused fertilizer and water that would otherwise be wasted. It also naturally suppresses weeds and supports honeybees and other pollinators. The U of M has already mapped the genome of pennycress and is using that information to try and create lines that can produce consistent yields of oil and feed in our climate.

Intermediate wheatgrass is another work in progress that holds a lot of potential. Southwest Minnesota farmer Carmen Fernholz has been growing a two-acre test plot of the perennial grass for the past three years in collaboration with Forever Green and the Land Institute. He says it grows over five feet high and since it is so similar to native grasses in his area he knows the root system is deep and extensive. That’s important to Fernholz, who does whatever he can to build soil health on his 400-acre organic crop farm.

“We’re going to have to do something to improve soil properties because we are in fact losing that diversity of soil microbes a healthy system needs,” says Fernholz, who regularly uses rye and other traditional cover crops as part of his rotation. “We do have to accept the fact that agriculture is a soil disturbance process. My goal on my own farm is to minimize that disturbance while staying economically viable.”

The farmer says intermediate wheatgrass has that potential to balance environmental health with economic viability—it could be a source of livestock forage, biomass feedstock, even grain.

On the other hand, he’s noticed how the seed head falls off and shatters before maturing. He’s excited to see how Forever Green research could solve this problem, as well as help develop shade- and drought-tolerant cover crop varieties that would do well when planted right in the rows of a growing corn or soybean field. Innovations in seed varieties as well as field equipment are needed if cover cropping is to work in Minnesota’s short growing season, says Fernholz

Pennycress and wheatgrass are examples of innovations that have come a long way as a result of research resources Wyse and his associates have been able to patch together in recent years. But now it’s time to take the next steps.

“We’ve brought things like this far enough along that I can look anyone in the eye and say, ‘These projects are worth the investment,’ ” says Wyse. “I can’t tell you which ones are going to fail and which are going to be successful, but here’s a core of six or seven projects that are worthy of additional investment for the next five years.”

Part of the reason Forever Green requires long-term investment is because it’s not just a typical research project that takes a narrow, agronomic view of how to improve cover cropping. There’s no doubt the ability of pennycress and wheatgrass to protect the land during the brown season is a plus, but, as Fernholz implies, such alternatives will never catch on unless farmers find them profitable to raise. How can the market value match the environmental value of these crops?

Forever Green proposes doing this by developing incubators across the state that would coordinate the technological, economic and even policy innovations needed to make alternative crops a consistent part of the farming picture. These incubators, which are called “Landlabs,” would help overcome the “chicken or the egg” barriers that often plague innovations in agriculture. What incentive do farmers have to plant a new crop of there is no market for it? And even if there is a market, what if there are no processing and transportation systems available to get the product from the field to the end user?

Landlabs are an attempt to coordinate all of these steps in a way that farmers and other links in the chain aren’t taking on all the initial risk of trying something innovative. The Landlab concept is what sets Forever Green apart from other research initiatives that simply look at how to produce a higher yielding crop—this is a big picture, integrated approach to dealing with the issue of creating diversity on the land.

That’s why Forever Green will require consistent funding over a number of years if it is to be successful. That means an investment of public dollars. After all, it was public funding that helped spawn the revolution in Minnesota corn and soybean production during the 20th Century.

The 2014 Minnesota Legislature has a prime opportunity to provide a major boost to high-efficiency agriculture.The Minnesota Senate Omnibus Finance Bill has funding for the Forever Green Initiative at $1.15 million. The money comes from the Clean Water Fund, which has unused funds even after keeping a 5 percent reserve. The Clean Water Fund is the money from the Legacy Amendment passed by voters in 2008 which dedicates a portion of the sales tax to cleaning up Minnesota’s waters. Forever Green would be an excellent use of that money.

This week, the Senate and House Omnibus Finance bills are in conference committee, and out of that committee will come the final funding legislation. The House bill does not spend any Clean Water Funds and keeps the reserves at the unnecessarily high level of 7 percent. The House must simply agree to the Senate proposal to spend part of the unused Clean Water Funds on Forever Green at $1.15 million.

This is a key time for key House leaders and even Governor Mark Dayton to hear from people who would like to see a highly efficient agriculture that produces more than a handful of raw commodities a few months out of the year. Forever Green is the kind of land grant research that can help our state’s agriculture live up to its true potential. For details on how to make your voice heard immediately, see the Land Stewardship Project’s action alert.

“This isn’t just about one crop—this is about getting more cover on the land and feeding the livestock in our soil,” says Fernholz.

Cover Crops: Insuring Against Disaster

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Thanks to the recently passed 2014 Farm Bill, federally subsidized crop insurance is an even bigger player in determining what the landscape looks like. That’s troubling, considering that in recent years that impact has been mostly negative, since the program removes most of the risk associated with plowing up acres formerly considered too erosive, wet or otherwise marginal to produce a decent crop.

But perhaps this behemoth of a program can be a force for good. After all, crop insurance’s growing clout in federal farm policy makes it one of the last remaining programs for incentivizing farmers to put in place conservation production systems.

The Farm Bill’s authors recognized the increasingly long shadow crop insurance casts over the land, and tried to address it by linking conservation compliance to insurance premium subsidies. Under the new rules, farmers must have in place basic soil and water stewardship on highly erodible or very wet land to qualify for subsidized insurance premiums.

That’s a good step forward but may present challenging implementation issues, such as how an enforcement system is put in place. After all, past attempts to link federal agriculture program eligibility and conservation compliance have met with mixed results.

The Farm Bill also included a sodsaver provision that reduces crop insurance subsidies on land previously unplowed for crops. Again, this is an important step and could save some of our fast disappearing grasslands. But it should be pointed out that although the sodsaver restriction was originally sought nationwide, the final Farm Bill limited it to Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Montana.

But farmers and soil conservationists are starting to talk about an even bigger opportunity for using crop insurance to promote stewardship farming. Why not use it to support farming systems that make farming less risky in this era of increasingly erratic climate? One example of a farming technique that is increasingly proving its powers of resiliency is cover cropping—growing non-commodity species like rye to protect fields and build soil health on acres that normally would be covered only a few months out of the year by corn and soybeans.

As we reported in February, recent farmer surveys in the Upper Mississippi River watershed are showing cover cropping provides the kind of soil health benefits that are not only good for the environment, but also economically viable. Cover cropping has proven particularly effective under less than ideal weather conditions, such as the Great Drought of 2012.

But adoption of the technique still lags in the U.S.—one estimate is that only around 2 percent of farmland in the Mississippi River basin is cover-cropped each year. That’s why during last month’s National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, there was much talk about using crop insurance to get more cover on the land. Several conference presenters echoed the same sentiment: insurance reforms that recognize healthier soil as a lower risk to the public coffers may be one way to promote cover cropping.

“We need to build resiliency into our systems, because nature throws us curve balls,” said Wayne Honeycutt, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s deputy chief for science and technology. “If something can be quantified as lower risk, then it only follows that it should translate into lower insurance rates and lower loan rates.”

A quarter of the respondents to one of the recent cover crop surveys said a reduction in insurance premiums would give them an incentive to plant cover crops, according to Rob Myers, regional director of Extension Programs for the USDA’s North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

During the Omaha conference, Myers and others announced a goal of seeing U.S. cover cropped acres grow from the current estimate of three million to 20 million by 2020. Perhaps one way to reach that goal is to use the crop insurance system to directly reward farmers who take care of the soil.

“Just tie crop insurance to soil loss and you’d have 20 million acres of cover crops just like that,” said Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who uses cover cropping as part of an integrated system involving mob grazing of cattle and no-till planting. During a panel discussion in Omaha, Brown said the current crop insurance program impedes innovation in agriculture by taking away the incentives for farmers to try things beyond the typical corn-soybean rotation. “On our farm we’ve built enough soil resiliency that we don’t need crop insurance.”

However, the Risk Management Agency (RMA) isn’t convinced. And that’s too bad, since the RMA administers the federal crop insurance program. It has its hands tied because the use of cover crops isn’t always recognized as a “good farming practice,” said an RMA official who attended the Omaha conference. He added that RMA defers to university research on what is considered a sound, low-risk agricultural technique and the agency is “uncomfortable” with the fact that there isn’t a lot of good research on cover cropping.

“In insurance we want an unbiased source of information,” said the official.

I’ve been to the part of North Dakota where Gabe Brown and the other farmers and scientists he works with are proving that a diversity-based system that utilizes cover cropping can produce soils that resist everything from drought to wash-outs. In this case, a very unbiased source—the weather—has spoken.

Enbridge to replace tar sands with maple syrup

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Maple syrup

Facing unanticipated opposition to their Alberta Clipper expansion plans, Enbridge has announced they will replace the tar sands oil in their pipeline with Canada’s strategic maple syrup reserve. Canadian authorities have given approval to the switch, but will carefully meter Enbridge’s syrup use as the strategic maple syrup reserve is a relatively significant wellspring of national pride.

Enbridge officials explain that the maple syrup is lighter, and less politically charged. A leading Enbridge representative remarks, “I feel so relieved that we have made this switch – I only worry that our maple syrup Christmas packages will now be replaced with fruit.”


 Happy April Fool’s Day!