Take a road trip through the Midwest during the growing season, and it feels like you're moving through a sea of corn and soybeans grown largely for livestock feed or ethanol. But now, low grain prices and increasing pressure to clean up waterways may push some farmers to consider other options.
Corn and soybeans make up nearly 40 percent of what's currently grown in 13 farm country states (Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado), according to the US Department of Agriculture. So changes are likely to come slowly, if they come at all, and plenty of obstacles remain.
To begin with, farmers aren't going to plant a new crop unless they know they can sell it. Right now, grain elevators, transportation systems and even the markets have all evolved to make selling corn and soybeans relatively easy. That means it's risky and challenging for commercial-scale farmers to change what they grow on hundreds of acres, even when they think it might be good for their land.
In hilly southwest Iowa, the winter terrain is primarily dark soil streaked with the beige remains of last season's corn. But on some fields a hint of plant life is already visible.
"I'm known as that green farm out east of New Market," said Kelly Tobin, who's been farming in Taylor County since the 1960s. We're looking out at a field not of corn, but of rye. Tiny shoots are just barely tinting the near-frozen ground with a layer of green.
"I've always been an innovator and I always like to do things and try [new things]," Tobin said. "So we always experiment every year on something different and so this is a project that I wanted to build up the organic matter."
Tobin says he's counting on this batch of cover crops, plants grown opposite the corn and soybeans, to put down roots that keep soil and nutrients on the fields. He's also made physical changes on his fields that control the water and prevent it from running off before nutrients have been absorbed into the soil.
Despite his eagerness to experiment and improve his land, Tobin illustrates the challenge for any modern farmer: he could plant alfalfa, for instance, on some of his fields to help nurture the soil. But that would mean planting less corn, and likely earning less money, at least in the short term.
"How can you sell the alfalfa?" he asked. "But I think, where there's a will there's a way and we'll figure out something."
Years ago, Tobin raised cattle and he laments that he no longer does because they would eat the alfalfa hay. The rolling hills here once housed many more cattle and grew fewer acres of crops, although some farmers still do have cattle that graze on the corn stalks and cobs left on the harvested fields, or on cover crops.
Some researchers think integrated systems with varied crops and livestock could benefit the land. Iowa State University agronomist Matt Liebman’s data show that adding alfalfa into a corn-soybean rotation can actually increase future corn yields. But without livestock, farmers have to be more creative to make the economics work.
"Sometimes you see farms that don't have livestock that are growing hay work with neighboring farms that are feeding livestock," said Liebman, "and the manure can come back to the crop farm."
Because the prices for corn and soybeans have dropped in recent years, this might be a good time for farmers to look at growing crops that can help soil or protect water, especially if they could benefit the farm's overall operation over the long haul.
Liebman presented his research to a receptive group of farmers at a recent day-long meeting in Lenox, sponsored by the Taylor County Soil and Water Conservation District. One local farmer in attendance, Ronald Taylor, said he still keeps about 50 cows and grows alfalfa, in addition to corn and soybeans.
"I raise alfalfa because I like raising alfalfa," he said, "I get more joy out of that than raising corn or cattle." And he could get more benefit from the alfalfa, he learned, perhaps by rotating it with the other crops more frequently. He's also going to try clover as a cover crop. Current market prices for corn and soybeans are making it more palatable to try new things, he said.
"It's a little more ideal time to try something new on some of that highly productive ground," Taylor said.
Despite the challenges, growing alfalfa every few years or putting down a cover crop doesn't force farmers to move too far out of their existing systems. That adds to the appeal, and the likelihood that farmers will give it a go, but it doesn't give change much of a jump-start.
"Sometimes that's the frustration about our system here, it's that all new things seem to have to fit into the current paradigm," said Mary Wiedenhoeft, another Iowa State agronomist. She's thinking bigger. While climate and soil dictate what we can grow, pockets in the Midwest of wheat or popcorn or pumpkins could be something more. "Why can't we change that paradigm?"
She knows it's a tall order. But Wiedenhoeft would like to see more fields growing food for human consumption. U.S. farmers raise more than two dozen different field crops, including many that feed people as opposed to livestock or cars. But most are small players in the Midwest. Add up all of the acres of canola, sorghum and wheat and you'll still have less than half of all corn acres, according to USDA data. Wiedenhoeft says there's plenty of room among the rows and rows of corn and beans in Iowa to grow other crops, too.
"I'm not interested in completely replacing 11 million acres of corn or 11 million acres of soybeans. I'm interested in a patchwork and diversity on the landscape," she said. "I don't want another monoculture."
Some future summer day, driving through Iowa farmland could be a little less monotonous. Change takes time. But with that, sunflower might brighten up the leafy green quilt of Corn Belt farmland with contrasting blocks of bright yellow petals.