In the Spotlight

News & Features
Crop Diversity
By Kathryn Herzog
November 23, 1998
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Earlier this century, Minnesota's farm fields were a patchwork of color, an array of crops. After World War II came a push for U.S. farmers to increase production. Many streamlined their operations and focused more on one or two cash crops.

This shift has helped Minnesota's farmers compete in the global marketplace. But as a result, the Minnesota landscape has suffered a significant decrease in plant and animal diversity. Now, farmers and agronomists are looking for ways to bring the diversity back.

DEL FOX'S FARMLAND NEAR KIMBALL MINNESOTA has been in his family for more than 100 years. He remembers as a child seeing fields checkered with a constant rotation of grains and vegetables, and a virtual zoo of farm animals.

Fox: Chickens, hogs... you named it we raised it... ducks, geese. We used to raise rape. It was some kind of forage, I don't know remember what it was. We also had small grains in there... alfalfa, old alfalfa that we could fence off, that's what the hogs went and grazed on.

Fox is like many farmers across Minnesota. His farm has doubled in size, but he now relies on only two crops: corn and soybeans. The recent drop in crop prices has hit Fox hard. Nearly all of his corn crop is still in storage while he waits for prices to go up. He had to sell his soybean crop to pay the bills. Fox says there's always a risk in farming, but with more crops the risk was not as high.

Fox: And of all them entities that you had - one of 'em was usually, within reason, a good market, so you made some money on one of 'em. Now, you're stickin' yer neck out on two entities and usually both go side by side. If one is poor, usually the other one is poor. And the only thing you got going for you is a good crop... and well, this year we had a good crop and a poor price.

Minnesota's farm fields are now a patchwork with less color and the dominance of a few profitable cash crops is showing environmental and economic affects. In the Red River Valley, short rotations of wheat and barley have lead to an epidemic of scab disease, costing farmers $4.2 billion since 1992.

In southern Minnesota, about 70 percent of the land is now planted in corn and soybeans. Standard farming practice for both crops requires chemical fertilizers and pesticides to boost the yield-per-acre. The runoff from those fields can pollute surrounding lakes and rivers.

Margo Rudstrum is an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota in Morris. She says it's exactly those agricultural and environmental consequences that will affect farm towns as well.

Rudstrum: If you look around the state, the counties that seemed to be buffered a little bit more from low commodity prices, the rural counties, are the ones who tend to have diversified economies. They have more than just cropping systems in their economy. They rely on more than just agriculture in their economy, so there's different types of farms, livestock, crops, and different types of livestock within a county. Counties with non-ag industry also tend to be buffered more than others.

Rudstrum says the recent farm crisis is a perfect example of how dependence on only a few crops affects rural economies. Today, farmers export half their crops. The recent softening in world markets drops the demand for those goods, leaving Minnesota farmers with no financial safety net when prices plummet. Rudstrum says the effects of the farm crisis are evident on main streets across the state.

Rudstrum: If you look in some of the counties, say in the Red River Valley, that are so dependent on the small grains, they tended not to fair as well. And I think if you go and check out areas like that, you find more of the rural area businesses closing, and you see a decline in the population base in some of those very ag-dependent communities.

Those communities saw their biggest change ever 50 years ago, when the call came to plant fence-post-to-fence-post and feed the world.

At the same time, the world's demand for meat increased. The call for corn and soybeans came not to feed the world's human population, but rather, the animals. Livestock consume 60 percent of the corn and 48 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. Most human food today is based on corn and soybean products as well, such as high fructose corn syrup. The syrup is cheap, abundant, and now in everything from sodas to meats to pastas.

Don Wyse directs the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

Wyse: So there's this continual demand for those products by the processors and little demand for anything else. In other words, there isn't a place for many other crops in the system because most of the food products we're consuming, including meat, are based off of corn and soybeans.

Wyse has joined farmers and agronomists from across the state to form a diversity task force. The group works to find new markets for farm products.

One idea already at work in west central Minnesota involves new uses for alfalfa. Farmers are adding alfalfa into their corn and soybean rotations. Alfalfa will also power a new electrical plant. Alfalfa is considered an environmentally friendly crop because it doesn't require intensive chemicals and it helps prevent soil erosion.

But Wyse says ultimately consumers will cast the deciding vote on crop diversity based on what they buy and eat.

Wyse: The farmers can't make the change. They have very little or no power in the system. Everything is basically dictated to them, including the markets and the market price. It has to be that more of the other 98 percent of the folks that are not on the farm need to be engaged and understand the dilemma, and decide if they want to participate in helping to deal with some of these issues.

Wyse says sustainable agriculture, focusing on a range of crops, will improve farming. With crop prices now the lowest in decades, farmers like Del Fox say they're willing to give it a try.