Early this morning, the Minnesota Legislature took a major step toward supporting the kind of agriculture that can green up our landscape in a way that’s economically viable for farmers. Conference committee negotiations produced $1 million for Forever Green, an innovative University of Minnesota research initiative involving cover crops and perennial plant systems. Funding for this initiative has been a major priority for the Land Stewardship Project, and could go a a long ways toward producing the kind of land grant research that can help our state’s agriculture live up to its true potential.
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. In fact, the problem of fertilizer runoff is becoming worse throughout the Mississippi River basin, according to testimony U.S. Geological Survey scientists gave in a congressional hearing last week.
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.
“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.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.