The commercial opened on a lone, bearded farmer standing in a dark field. A narrator intoned meaningfully that less than 1 percent of American farmland is organic. But, the female voice continued, we could change that simply by buying Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, the first national, certified-organic beer brand. There was the pop and hiss of a twist-off bottle top, and suddenly we were in the club, only the club was a subway station and a woman carried a six-pack with her onto the train.
Imagine for a moment, a possible future, some years ahead: Across the plains, acres that were once plowed up and planted to corn or wheat go back to native grass. Marginal, flood-prone land is left to return to wetlands, improving water quality downstream. Farmers diversify their operations in order to effectively manage risk in a changing climate. Monocropping is a thing of the past.
Or this scenario, not so long from now: Growers adopt practices like no-till and cover cropping, which helps lower their inputs—the money spent on fertilizer, pesticides, seed, and anything else they need to get a crop in the ground. They turn a profit with ease. They may even switch to cheaper, non-GMO seeds and see profit margins swell.
In this future tableau, cattle are turned out to pasture on land that was once intensively farmed. Land managers plant low-cost grasses and other silage, and graze livestock on a portion of the land while the remaining acres are allowed to rest and regenerate. There’s always something growing in the soil, anchoring nitrogen, helping retain rainwater, and sequestering carbon.
This is what American agriculture could one day look like, according to farmers, environmentalists, and economists. But first we’d have to get rid of federally subsidized crop insurance.
Crop insurance works too well for farmers who farm without regard for long-term soil health, and not well enough for the few who do. A new task force wants to change that.
This spring, historic flooding across the Great Plains and Upper Midwest engulfed millions of acres of cropland. The fields were so inundated, many farmers couldn’t farm; the pace of corn planting was the slowest in 40 years. With one eye on the sodden ground and the other on the calendar, farmers were faced with a terrible choice: risk planting late in the season, a move that could cost them a yield and income in the fall, or rely on crop insurance, which provides some coverage when extreme weather prevents planting. Read more…
Cover crops and other regenerative agriculture practices are still pigeonholed as conservation practices, not as good farming practices. But if farmers want crop insurance, they have to play by the rules.
Last year, a few days before Christmas, Gail Fuller drove me out to the middle of a wind-whipped field just north of Emporia, Kansas. “This is really where it started for me,” he said as he climbed out of the truck, spade in hand. With a thunk, he drove the spade into the ground and pulled out a hunk of earth, holding it up so I could see the texture, which he described as like “chocolate cake” and “black cottage cheese.” Read more…
They were a fixture of the landscape as I was growing up, but I never stopped to wonder why that might be, or whether that might ever change. At least, I didn’t until soybeans began making headlines earlier this year.
It’s a late weekday afternoon when I get the call inviting me to come ride. I quickly throw on jeans and boots and several layers to shield against the November chill. It’s a short drive, but when I pull off the road, the combine is already going full tilt, three to five miles per hour. Soon enough the John Deere is bearing down on me, towering 14 feet tall and nearly twice as wide, spitting out a cloud of dust that trails in its wake like smoke. I throw my hands up in greeting, and alarm. Read more…