Reimaging Midwestern agriculture

Cattle running in a pasture

By Laura Paine, Grassland 2.0 Outreach Coordinator

What if we could reshape our food and agriculture system so that, in addition to tasty, nutritious food, it could produce healthy, resilient soils, clean air and water, biodiversity, stable incomes for farmers, and support vibrant rural communities? About half of the land in the U.S. is farmed. This land–this soil–is our nation’s most substantial and important natural resource. It is what we live on, both literally and figuratively. It can–and should–provide more than cheap food, livestock feed and ethanol.

How did we get here and where do we want to go?

Our current system, with its focus on economies of scale, has evolved toward larger farms, more mechanization, and more specialization. Consequences have been the decoupling of livestock and cropping systems, a depopulating of the rural landscape, and degradation of soil health, water quality and other natural resources.

Grassland 2.0 is a collaborative project based at the University of Wisconsin and involving partners across the upper Midwest working together to transform our food and agriculture system. We envisions an agriculture system in which livestock are re-integrated into cropping systems, spreading the benefits of well-managed perennial forages and fertility from livestock manure and legumes across the landscape. Livestock production can deliver other ecosystem services in addition to high quality grass-fed meat and dairy products, price premiums for family-scale farms, and economic growth for rural communities.

So, we have this vision…how do we get there?

Making these changes is a monumental task, akin to changing the course of an ocean liner. It won’t be fast and easy and we need everyone’s help. That’s why we really valued our recent conversation with about 70 participants in our Reimagining Midwestern Agriculture Roundtable during the Growing Stronger Collaborative Conference on February 26, 2021. Listening to your voices, hearing your ideas, and drawing together your energy is key to getting this right.

The conversation was shaped around understanding the social, technical and policy barriers to making this transformational shift in our food and farming system from one that is primarily annual row crops for non-food purposes (livestock feed, ethanol), to one that has a significant proportion of pasture and other perennial crops producing food that is mostly consumed locally and regionally.

Several points are key to our understanding of the social, technical and policy barriers –

Barriers to change are linked. We were eager to hear participants’ thoughts about the relative significance of these barriers and how to overcome them. A big theme was linkages among the social, technical and policy barriers and the broader societal drivers that we must remake and reimagine. Participants pointed out that agriculture functions within an economic system that reinforces the status quo, rewards economic efficiency over broader societal benefits, and consolidates wealth and power in the hands of the few. Decision-making is the purview of supply chain actors and policy makers, often to the detriment of both regenerative farmers and low-income eaters. Some of our solutions may need to come from outside of agriculture.

Policy has power. Federal subsidies for annual row crop systems were identified by several participants as one of the main policy obstacles to making change. Policy barriers were considered “enormous” or “big” by 52% of the respondents to our poll. Leveling the playing field for pastures, hay and alternative crops was identified as a key to transforming the system. Subsidies provided for corn and soybeans serve to ‘de-risk’ annual row-crop production in a way that makes it hard for crop farmers to diversify and harder for livestock farmers, especially those using pasture-based systems, to succeed at all.

Social barriers are tricky. Social and cultural barriers can be just as significant as policy barriers and 56% of our participants considered these barriers “enormous” or “big.” For social issues, it’s harder to point to a specific solution. Participants talked about the disconnect between farmers and eaters, and how public support could help encourage the adoption of regenerative agriculture systems that provide broader social and environmental benefits as well as healthy food. A system with many small farms and small food companies was seen as more democratic and would be more resilient in the face of climate change or a pandemic.

Another significant social barrier involves the dissolution of social networks in rural communities. Larger and larger farms and increasing mechanization means fewer farmers, farm employees, and farm related businesses like veterinarians, feed mills and processing plants. It also means a smaller community of like-minded farmers and neighbors to support you in your farming enterprise.

Social and technical barriers are linked. As we turned to technical and production barriers, several social topics crossed over. I’ve always thought that managed grazing was a pretty simple system to master, but it really does require a different way of thinking and a different set of skills. It’s actually best learned by doing. Participants reinforced this thinking and emphasized the value of a support system for adopting perennial systems: Where do you turn when all of your neighbors are doing things differently? Where do you turn for help when you’re making a transition from a very different system?

And many of the support systems that exist are not tuned in to managed grazing. Banks often dismiss managed grazing as an unviable business model, limiting access to capital for farmers who wish to transition. Graziers don’t use nearly as many purchased inputs as crop farmers do. The feedback loop between private sector product development and university research ensures that annual cropping systems are heavily supported. Grazing systems and other alternative crops are neglected when it comes to crop improvement, cropping systems research, and technical assistance from the private sector.

Land access was brought up as a significant production barrier, with ties to policy. As long as row crops are subsidized as they are, land values will remain artificially high, limiting access for unsubsidized production systems like managed grazing. Several participating farmers had personal experience with land access challenges, wanting to expand their operations but being out-bid by corn farmers.

Even with these barriers, a key takeaway from the conversation was the importance of seizing the moment. We have a whole generation of baby boomer farmers retiring and millions of acres changing hands. Consolidation and specialization in agriculture will accelerate if we don’t do something to change course now. Turning that ocean liner won’t be easy, but we can do it by recognizing and learning from indigenous knowledge of perennial systems, tapping into that diversified farming wisdom of older generations and making the most of the next generation’s youthful innovation. Beginning farmers, who have monumental social and financial barriers getting started, are a key source of creativity in agriculture. They can lead us forward to a new food and farming system that not only puts healthy food on the table but also protects and regenerates the planet that sustains us.