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Crop diversity help wanted

A group of researchers has launched a program to look at what’s next for crops in the Midwest, focusing on Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

July 12, 2022

2 Min Read
sunset light cast over a cornfield
ALTERNATIVE: The Diverse Corn Belt project will explore alternative crops, longer rotations, integration of livestock and perennials, and more — but researchers need information from farmers. Holly Spangler

The three I-states in the Midwest long ago settled into a rotation that primarily focuses on corn and soybeans, with a little wheat mixed in and the occasional cover crop. But a group of researchers is looking at what’s next — and what ideas could open up new opportunities for Midwest farmers and rural communities.

“The idea for the Diverse Corn Belt project originated from several discussions with colleagues and the realization that we aren’t going to address all the sustainability concerns — environmental, social, economic — with modern ag by simply promoting cover crops,” says Linda Prokopy, natural resources social science professor at Purdue University.

That’s why Prokopy and her colleagues at Iowa State University, the University of Illinois and an additional 30 partners have launched the Diverse Corn Belt project. Prokopy says the project will explore alternative crops, longer rotations, integrating livestock and perennials, and more — but they need information from farmers.

The study focuses on Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, and they’re looking for farmers from those states to serve as a focus group and help with in-field research. The team will also conduct research, extension and modeling in those three states. In addition to Prokopy, team members include Aslihan Spaulding at Illinois State University; Emily Heaton, Andrew Margenot and Shadi Atallah at U of I; and J. Arbuckle and Phil Gassman at Iowa State.

“We are seeking farmer involvement at every stage of the Diverse Corn Belt project, starting with understanding how different producers define diversity, and getting their direction on the questions they want us to explore,” Prokopy says. “We want to know what is working for them in the current system and what the barriers are to diversification.”

She adds that they’re looking at more than just production challenges; they’re interested in agronomics, economics and animal productivity, plus the social, infrastructure and policy that would need to change to make it all possible.

They need farmers of all backgrounds to serve in focus groups and be willing to have conversations about diversification challenges and opportunities. Farmers can also host in-field research, allowing agronomists, entomologists, hydrologists and soil scientists to study their current management systems — and again, those can be conventional corn-soybean rotations or complex cropping-grazing systems.

“We are developing a vision of a Corn Belt beyond the corn-soybean system and its infrastructure, a future that provides farmers and communities with a more profitable and resilient agriculture,” notes Arbuckle at Iowa State. “To do that, we’re working with farmers with highly specialized systems that are prevalent today and with highly diversified farmers who provide examples of what’s possible.”

The five-year, $10 million project is funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive grant.

Farmers who are interested can sign up online.

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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