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‘Diverse Corn Belt’ project seeks to unlock future ag potential
 
By Tim Alexander
Illinois Correspondent

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Exploring production opportunities beyond corn and soybeans and investigating the real-world impacts of diversified farming systems is the impetus behind Purdue University’s ambitious “Diverse Corn Belt” (DCB) project. According to Emily Usher, project manager, DCB is a multi-disciplinary undertaking involving over 30 research partners including the University of Illinois and Iowa State University.
The project, supported through a competitive USDA grant and led by principal investigator Dr. Linda Prokopy, is seeking options for farm diversification while working to present an understanding of the agronomic, economic, social, infrastructure and policy changes that could make future farm diversification in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa possible.
“We’re looking at what is next (in agriculture and conservation),” Usher said. “With the DCB project, Dr. Prokopy has put together a large and diverse team of researchers who can help us understand what the future of agriculture could look like, and what the impacts of that future could be.”
DCB research teams are currently studying the environmental, agronomic and social impacts on rural “I-state” communities that would be affected by greater farm diversity. In addition to the land-grant university connection, project researchers are also working with partners such as Practical Farmers of Iowa, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and the USDA Economic Research Service.
“This is a five-year project funded with $10 million, and we are into our third year,” Usher said.

Studies driven partly by climate change

“The foundation of the project is that in our current system we produce a lot of corn and a lot of soybeans on a lot of acres, and it creates a lot of wealth. There are currently a lot of challenges to that dominant system, including climate change. What we believe is that solutions can include a shift to more diversity in our agricultural system, at the farm landscape and at the agricultural markets,” Usher explained. “We’re trying to create an evidence-based vision that supports a more diversified system. Though this is a five-year project, we do not envision changing the landscape in five years.”
Rather, the project will be considered a success if it serves to advance the conversation about farm diversification in the Midwest in the coming years, according to its project manager. To date, around 20 focus groups have been conducted across the I states to better understand the opportunities and barriers farmers face. The focus groups included diversified farmers as well as conventional row crop producers. Conclusions drawn by the researchers from those meetings will soon be made available to the public.
On-farm research is in progress, as are personal interviews with diversified farmers. In February, the team will be putting together a public-facing year-two report that quantifies the work being done at Purdue on the DCB project.
“This report will include overviews from the focus groups we’ve been holding,” Usher said. “Our Reimagining Agricultural Diversity teams consist of farmers, landowners, retailers and other folks along the supply chain. We will convene those teams and share what results we have as we are developing this vision.”

Policy must guide farm diversity

The researchers are developing plans for farm, market and landscape level diversity in Midwest agriculture. At the same time, the team seeks proven methods for crop rotation that can help build soil health, improve carbon sequestration, reduce pest buildup and broaden potential income streams. To achieve these goals, however, lawmakers must be compelled to create policy that supports and encourages such changes.
“There are policies in place that encourage the continuation of the very dominant corn and bean system. What we’re trying to understand is what sort of policy levels we will need to pull to enable support for a more diversified system,” Usher said. “Some of the challenges that we’ve found are a lack of awareness for whole farm insurance or lack of access to crop insurance. At the end of the day, what we are hoping to do is come up with some policy recommendations at the local and federal levels that would enable, rather than disable, an increasingly diversified system.”
More data and input from the project’s working groups, farmers and elsewhere must be gathered and assessed before concrete policy recommendations will be formed, Usher added. “The policy aspect of the study and our policy recommendations will come more into play during years four and five,” she said.
With the study only around halfway complete, in the coming months the DCB project team will continue to focus on identifying methods to unlock the potential for a more diverse crop system. Specifically, the team is working at the farm level studying the potential for the utilization of more small grains as perennial forage-and-or bioenergy crops, along with forestry, livestock integration and other diversification possibilities. On the market level, focus groups are exploring market opportunities for a more diverse Midwest crop system. They’re also looking at what impacts a more diverse crop system would have on the societal and physical landscape.
The DCB project is supported by an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
1/23/2024