It’s harvest time—during the next several weeks hundreds of millions of dollars worth of corn and soybeans will be extracted from Minnesota’s rich soil. Unfortunately, little of that wealth stays in our rural communities. It’s sucked out of these regions by a food and farm economy that exports raw commodities and imports finished products from hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away.
For example, Ken Meter at the Crossroads Resource Center recently estimated that west central Minnesota, which raises 23 percent of the state’s corn and 22 percent of its soybeans, is losing $1 billion annually. Our reliance on corn and soybeans—in some parts of the state 95 percent of the farmland is planted to these crops—is costing our rural economies dearly. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to encourage the planting of more corn and soybeans through its dysfunctional commodity subsidy system.
This duo-culture crop system means another kind of wealth is taking a one-way trip out of farm country: soil. Despite significant progress in recent decades to reduce erosion on cropland, many areas are still losing soil at a rate much faster than it can be replaced. Corn and soybeans only protect the soil from wind and rain a few months out of the year, and that’s not enough. Respected University of Minnesota soil scientist Gyles Randall has angered some in the conventional agriculture community by saying that he doesn’t believe our current intensive corn-soybean agriculture system is sustainable, no matter how you slice it. Randall has the scientific evidence to back up his claim, but for some colorful graphic proof, check out the aerial photos at the bottom of his commentary.
Global climate change isn’t helping matters any. Scientists at the USDA’s National Soil Tilth Laboratory have research showing that the intense rainstorms that seem to be characteristic of our new climate situation could increase soil erosion as much as 95 percent in some areas. Installing terraces and reducing tillage on hilly cornfields is no longer sufficient, one of the Tilth Lab’s scientists recently told me. We need to diversify the landscape, getting more perennial plants such as grass and trees covering the soil all year ’round. As researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Green Lands, Blue Waters initiative have shown, converting just 10 to 15 percent of our marginal cropland to perennial systems could have a major positive environmental impact.
There may be a way to keep both our dollars and our soil at home. I recently spent some time in northwest Iowa’s Woodbury County, where officials and private citizens are working to make local, environmentally friendly farming a keystone of rural economic development. As I point out in “Putting Farming Back in the Driver’s Seat,” this is the first initiative of its kind in the nation. It’s still in the building stage, and is more potential than reality, but Woodbury County’s efforts could pay big dividends for the local community, as well as the environment. If more farmers are raising food for local consumption, that will mean more dollars will stay home. Since local residents can consume only so much corn and soybeans, it will also mean those farmers will be getting rewarded financially for having diverse crop and livestock operations (diversity is currently penalized under the federal commodity system). And more diversity on the land means a healthier ecosystem.
If things work out, this experiment in northwest Iowa could be a stellar example of using the market to encourage environmental stewardship. Every region dominated by the current corn-soyban system would do well to watch Woodbury County closely.