As if we needed yet another wake-up call, the novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the food system and Iowa agriculture. Global and national supply chains are crashing, disrupting markets and causing economic losses of almost unimaginable proportions for Iowa farmers and livestock producers.
Iowa is smart about agriculture, and we’ll get through this crisis. The question is, how?
Traditional siloed and incremental problem-solving approaches cannot resolve the multiple and interconnected challenges that the world and Iowa agriculture now face. Going forward, we must find ways to maintain a secure food system that results in profitability, productivity and environmental sustainability in concert.
There is little doubt that our critical landscape infrastructure is increasingly challenged by multiple threat multipliers, including highly variable weather events and climate change. At the same time, shifts in growing seasons, soil erosion, water quality degradation and wild economic swings are additional challenges facing Iowa agriculture.
In response, a collaborative group of Iowans committed to enhancing the quality of landscape management has begun to meet under the banner “Iowa Smart Agriculture”. The collaboration aims to challenge us all to do more and better in how we secure and sustain our agricultural productivity and ecosystem integrity, and with recognition that solutions for the land must come from those that study and manage the land, including — and most especially — our farmers.
Among many such ideas, we are intrigued by the broader application of profitability mapping. The practice allows farmers to save money on those acres that do not, on average, produce a profitable crop, by leaving them to grow up into perennial herbaceous plants that are trafficable and do not distract from farming the adjoining acreage. Those areas, perhaps easily five percent of all farmed acres in Iowa, are often unprofitable because they are too wet or too dry or too steep or otherwise compromised. By managing them with perennial cover, they will contribute to climate and conservation goals, including soil organic carbon retention and improved water quality.
Another example we are exploring is the synergistic relationship between commodity crop and livestock producers using cover crops as a feedstock for anaerobic digesters. Climate-smart agriculture practices like these can benefit producers and the planet. What’s not to like about that?
As leaders of the Iowa Smart Agriculture Initiative, we’ll be working across the agricultural sector and with our conservation partners to bring the best values and ideas of farming to our landscapes. Commodity, conservation and water quality organizations, along with Iowa State University and multiple state and federal agencies, are working together on the many important issues our state will face once we emerge out of the current pandemic.
Going forward, it will be more important than ever to be good stewards of limited resources and expand the use of integrated, multi-stakeholder collaborations to address our challenges. When we work together, we all benefit.
Ray Gaesser, Kellie Blair and Bryan Sievers are co-chairs of the Iowa Smart Agriculture Initiative.
Gaesser is a corn and soybean producer from Corning, is past chairman and president of the American Soybean Association.
Blair is a diversified crop and livestock producer near Dayton, focuses on soil conservation and water quality systems and practices on her family’s farm, locally, statewide and nationally.
Sievers, who served two terms in the Iowa Legislature, operates a beef cattle feedlot and farm near Stockton and has been actively involved in implementing a combined heat and power anaerobic digester and renewable energy project on his property.