By Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy

Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a study, “Rotating Crops, Turning Profits: How Diversified Farming Systems Can Help Farmers While Protecting Soil and Preventing Pollution.” It focuses on the environmental benefits, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased soil organic matter, of adding oats and alfalfa to corn and soybean cycles in Iowa. The report complements a 15-year experiment at Iowa State University that documented higher corn and soybean yields, fewer herbicide and fertilizer applications and, ultimately, similar profitability per acre when expanded rotations were deployed.

The underlying concept of expanding rotations should interest producers everywhere. As the prices producers can secure from established commodity markets remain low and access to international markets becomes more uncertain, emerging markets for oats and other grains may offer producers an effective way to diversify income. The UCS report suggests that policy makers can encourage expanded rotations by funding public research. For instance, examining the effects of different crops in livestock feed could help better establish whether and how producers can make money marketing the harvest of an extended rotation.

As new markets emerge, producers could band together to build the infrastructure needed to process and distribute products derived from new crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a suite of programs to encourage such enterprise development. To get started, producers can secure grant support for market assessments through the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) or the Local Food Promotion Program. Rural Development (RD) runs programs to bolster business development in rural communities and can offer advantageous financing and technical advice to producers interested in cooperating to reach new markets for oats and other grains.

Farmers interested in learning more about extending their rotations and how that might look on their ground can contact their local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office to talk about establishing a conservation plan. Between 2005 and 2015, 32.9% of the acres receiving Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) for cropland soil quality implemented conservation crop rotations. It was by far the largest share of CTA for cropland soil quality, so it is likely that your local office will be familiar with extended crop rotations.

Extended rotations can address natural resource concerns as identified by NRCS, including soil erosion, soil quality, water quality, and degraded plant conditions. Beyond CTA, NRCS runs programs that provide additional support for farmers to address natural resource concerns. Farmers with conservation plans can apply for technical and financial assistance to expand their crop rotations through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). EQIP contracts vary in length, but most last one to three years. Similarly, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers guarantees for commercial loans that can be used to introduce conservation crop rotations. These opportunities may help producers with the up-front costs of expanding their crop rotations.

Would you consider adding oats, alfalfa, or another grain to your corn and bean rotation? Why or why not? How can farmers and farm groups work together to help producers reach new markets? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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