Land Line: Relay Cropping, Ag Committees, CO2 & Crops, Superbugs, SNAP

Nov. 6 : An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Relay Cropping Helps Northeast Iowa Farmer Reach a Lofty Goal

(October 2020) Northeastern Iowa farmer Loran Steinlage is using "relay cropping" to keep living roots in the soil 365-days-a-year, according to 4R Plus. Steinlage was getting good yields growing continuous corn-on-corn. But he knew he could do better soil health-wise and wanted to improve his bottom line. After a few years of conducting field trials, in 2015 he transitioned to growing corn, soybeans, winter wheat, malt barley, and buckwheat on a rotational basis. Highlights:

  • In August, he planted rye into the corn and harvested the corn in the fall on established rye. In the spring he will plant soybeans into the standing rye and harvest the rye in July. After doing a couple of rotations similar to this, the rye yields match the soybean yields. “We have reached the point where the sum of both crops equals two or greater crops,” Steinlage says.
  • “Having a growing root between rows of corn and soybeans preserves moisture, suppresses weeds and adds organic matter to the soil,” he says
  • When Steinlage walks across his soil he notices the difference. “The living root is holding the soil in place and breaking up the compaction. The soil is mellow,” he said. “Moisture sensors prove the rain is soaking into the soil, so crops get the full benefit from the rain.”

LSP's Bridge to Soil Health Program has numerous resources for farmers seeking to build soil profitably.

New Chairs on the Way for Senate and House Agriculture Panels

(11/5/20) Southerners could lead both of the Agriculture committees in Congress as a result of Tuesday’s general election, reports Chuck Abbott at Successful Farming. Rep. David Scott of Georgia was first in seniority to succeed chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota on the House Agriculture Committee, and Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas was in line to chair the Senate panel. Peterson , a Democrat, lost his bid for a 16th term in the House to Republican Michelle Fischbach. Highlights:

  • The Agriculture chairs and the minority-party leaders on the committees often decide the final terms of legislation drafted by their committees.

Check out LSP's Federal Policy web page for details on our work to create public policy that supports sustainable agriculture and family farmers.

As Biotech Crops Lose Their Power, Scientists Push For New Restrictions

(10/29/20) Some of the most popular products of biotechnology — corn and cotton plants that have been genetically modified to fend off insects — are no longer offering the same protection from those bugs, reports National Public Radio. Scientists say that the problem results from farmers overusing the crops, and are pushing for new regulations. Highlights:

  • Over the past decade, insects like the corn rootworm, the cotton bollworm, and the Western bean cutworm have become resistant to one Bt gene after the other.
  • Scientists have long warned about this risk. They've been engaged in a long-running argument with the companies selling Bt crops, such as Monsanto, which has been acquired by Bayer.
  • Even before Monsanto started selling the first Bt crops, independent scientists pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the amount of land that farmers could devote to Bt crops.
  • Now scientists, once again, are pushing for tighter government rules. "We are at an important point, where we've seen what can happen, and definitely do need to make some changes," University of Nebraska entomologist Julie Peterson told NPR.

In episode 239 of LSP's Ear to the Ground podcast, entomologist Jonathan Lundgren talks about how farming systems that rely on biodiversity can help battle insect pests profitably.

To Predict how Crops Cope with Changing Climate, 30 Years of Experiments Simulate Future

(11/2/20) Science Daily reports on how over the past 30 years, a network of 14 long-term research facilities spanning five continents has simulated future levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) to forecast the impact on crops. A review published in Global Change Biology synthesizes this data to grasp how global crop production may be impacted by rising CO2 levels and other factors. The study portends a less optimistic future than the authors' previous review published 15 years ago. "It's quite shocking to go back and look at just how much CO2 concentrations have increased over the lifetime of these experiments," says one co-author of the study. Highlights:

  • Elevation of CO2 to levels expected for the second half of this century could increase the yields of crops like soybeans and rice by 18% with adequate nutrients and water.
  • But while CO2 could increase yields in some cases, it could also cause important quality losses; many crops showed lower mineral nutrient and protein contents. This yield response is also much smaller under the conditions of low nitrogen fertilization, which is the situation for many farmers in the world's poorer countries. Alarmingly, what has become apparent since the first review is that our major food crops become considerably more vulnerable to pests and diseases at higher CO2 levels.
  • "The anticipated 2° C rise in temperature, caused primarily by this increase in CO2, could halve yields of some of our major crops, wiping out any gain from CO2, said researcher Stephen Long.

Check out LSP's white paper, "Farming to Capture Carbon & Address Climate Change Through Building Soil," on our Carbon Farming web page.

Trump's Online SNAP Program Helps Amazon and Walmart, But Leaves Rural People Behind

(11/2/20) An In These Times investigation finds that many rural residents say online grocery ordering and delivery is fundamentally at odds with their cultural, physical, and technological realities. Instead, the program is almost entirely to the benefit of retail giants — leaving out independent grocers — and ignores the gaps in rural infrastructure. Highlights:

  • The use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest food and nutrition assistance program, has shot up in the fall¬out from the pandemic. Nationally, the number of SNAP recipients has grown to more than 43 million people, an increase of 6 million since March.
  • Rural communities have higher proportions of SNAP recipients than urban or suburban areas, and the interdependence between SNAP and rural grocers becomes clear. According to the Food Research and Action Center, rural people are 25% more likely than their urban counterparts to participate in SNAP. Nationally, participation is highest among households in rural counties (16%), compared with households in metro counties (13%), based on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data from 2011 – 2015.
  • Poverty looks and feels different in a rural community. Much of rural America has no public transportation and residents may live miles away from basic services (such as gas stations and grocery stores), and the pervasive lack of high-speed internet often renders technological solutions irrelevant.
  • One USDA initiative with seemingly little accessibility for rural Americans may be the fledgling Online Purchasing Pilot of SNAP. Theoretically, online SNAP allows benefit recipients to buy groceries on the internet. Absent from the online pilot, how­ev­er, are the thou­sands of small and inde­pen­dent gro­cers that have been feed­ing low-income rur­al Amer­i­cans for decades. accord­ing to the USDA’s Eco­nom­ic Research Ser­vice: “Stud­ies find that areas with a high share of low-income house­holds, as well as rur­al areas, tend to have more inde­pen­dent food retail­ers; rel­a­tive­ly few chain stores oper­ate in these areas.”
  • While eight retailers were originally approved by the USDA to participate in the Online Purchasing Pilot, only five were participating as of August. Of the 46 states now enrolled, Amazon and Walmart are the only retailers approved by the USDA in all but seven.

LSP Myth Buster #53 addresses how misinformation is fueling the federal government's attempts to cut food assistance programs.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.