Sit and Spin or Cornspiracy

Sit-and-Spin or Cornspiracy?

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Science can move at a snailspace, with painstaking deliberateness, but when it arrives, the evidence can be clear. On 10 October 2012 a nine-year farming study conducted on Marsden Farm in Boone County Iowa, by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in collaboration with Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota, was published by PLOS One, an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published on-line by the Public Library of Science. With an auspicious panel of experts and the winsome title of Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health, the study focused on alternatives to the current agribusiness model of monocropping that uses synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and minimal crop rotation.

Three plots of just under seven and a half acres each were laid out and worked for nine years: one had the standard rotation of corn and soybeans with the by-now standard inputs of synthetic fertilizer and herbicides; the second worked a three-year rotation of corn and soybeans with triticale (a hybrid cross of wheat and rye) or oats, plus red clover and cattle manure; and the third worked a four-year rotation of corn and soybeans adding alfalfa to the triticale or oats, red clover, and cattle manure. The second and third plots employed small amounts of synthetic fertilizer and herbicides, but at an 88% reduction over amounts used in the first plot. The results and implications of this lengthy and detailed study are worth considering for every farmer looking for a way forward. On many of these matters the jury is no longer out, if it ever was. The verdict is in.

The headline-grabber is that increased crop rotations and organic fertilizers equaled or exceeded the best that manufactured inputs could do. Crop yields were at least marginally better than their two-crop model (which served as the control) across the board. The authors of the study challenged the dominant paradigm, which they label “conventional agriculture,” and which many small farmers for the past forty years have thought of as the model of industrial agriculture. The essence of that model has been to simplify the job of the farmer, make him or her a specialist who focuses on a monocrop, in this case alternately corn or soybeans. It’s worth remembering that these two crops are mainstays of the processed foods and fast foods industries, the sources of much animal feed, and key subsitutes (or extenders) for the nation’s fossil fuel supply.

The Marsden Farm Study has implicitly broadened the farmer’s role with its model’s inclusion of grains, clover and alfalfa, and cattle manure as fertilizer. These elements suggest a more diversified farming that would include animals and meat consumption in the mix, and would use more labor in the field, and less synthetic fertilizer and herbicide inputs. Even requiring more labor, the increased crop rotations and use of natural fertilizers are competitive and profitable.

The report attempts to strike a politically savvy tone, for all its academic rigor in offering groundbreaking evidence that the pre-industrial ways are still economically viable, as well as environmentally sound. The authors walk a fine line, as they state, “the results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agricultural inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.” “Tune, rather than drive” — the phrasing is carefully chosen. We might well wonder why there wasn’t one further option to the rotation and cropping cycles, which would show cropping results without any synthetic fertilizers or herbicides. The dominant makers of fertilizers and herbicides might not like the implication that crops could be successfully grown without buying their costly inputs.

As an example of Research & Development, this study is actually an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment where most farmers already know from experience what the study’s findings will be. The lobbying and advertising dictates of Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill notwithstanding, their products don’t make good economic sense, and haven’t for a long while. Where we find ourselves is eye-deep in Roundup-resistant superweeds, with no easy fixes in sight. And what is still being sold is a culture of convenience for the big equipment operator, who might think of himself as a posterboy for big clean comfortable field machinery. Who cares if over your sound system and air-conditioning you never hear a killdeer or whippoorwill?

One further implication concerns scale. The plots at a little less than seven and a half acres each, or twenty-two total acres for all three plots, were large enough to be worked with large equipment, so that the study could not be accused of being an exercise in “gardening.” But as every farmer knows, these plots are minimal for big equipment, and really demonstrate that this farming could have been done with animal power, with horses, oxen or mules, or completely by hand. After all, Booker T. Washington as a young man on his first farm in Kansas worked twenty-one acres by himself using only hand tools.

Farmers today have moved closer to the situation of physicians, where the Hippocratic Oath enjoins them to “first do no harm” by their actions. And we all know that care of the land transcends economics, though there are few legal protections for injured parties until long after the fact. And too often the injured parties include all of us, far into the future.

The authors of the study did not begin and end with the economics, but reached down to matters of concern to both farmers and those who eat what is grown. The plots were tested for chemical runoff and soil loss, and the farming was conducted without any recourse to irrigation, in prime corn and soy country. And behind the study’s careful scientific discussion, the implications stand out in bold relief.

Reward Enough the Being Left Alone

Among the fields we work in turn
this one has grown somehow favored
for the angle of the low spring sun
that catches and warms it
how the mist encircles its fencelines
how it holds the downhill runoff

yet dries out firms up earliest
to let us get into and work
right when we need to begin
to feel useful and shake off
the drowsy winter’s plodding shivering
burn to put seed in the ground

that set back furthest from the road
allows nobody passing to admire
what’s poking up leafing out
see how we’re getting on much less
turn jealous what looks from a distance
to scarce amount to anything just yet

though with a smattering of clues
a bird house every other fence post
with its lyrical outspoken sentinel
straw to mulch the row crops
and along fences lush undergrowth
bees in wildflowers delirious

and now with hard red winter wheat and hay
grown together both finished
that fine clover-timothy mix
its leaf curl and fragrance cured perfect
that calves appear to more than tolerate
for its sunny taste down the darkest of days

having yielded us the finest corn and beans
now wheat and hay in living memory
delivered all we could ask of
a soil crumbly and fine as ancient cheese
dark as a moonless night past the first of the year
drowsing fragrant expectant

around the kitchen table it’s agreed
our favorite has earned a rest a fallow year
with the stubble left to hold
a place for what’s to come
reward enough the being left alone
through another winter slumber

– Paul Hunter
(published in Stubble Field Silverfish Review Press, 2012)