Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

I was reading The Des Moines Register a couple weeks ago, and came across an editorial that immediately caught my eye. “To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa farmer: Shifting from two-crop cycle can produce profits and environmental benefits.”

Watkins

Farmer Seth Watkins (left) and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Lieberman in a stand of native prairie grasses that help control erosion and also enhance the soil. (National Public Radio photo by John Ydstie)

The piece profiled Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, who has hit on a new way to farm that he says both frees farmers from the Midwest’s near universal and rigid corn-soybean two-crop system. Watkins, instead of going all-in on either two-crop grain farming or raising livestock, does both in interesting ways.

Watkins does grow corn but he also raises oats, alfalfa and other cover crops. He grazes his 600-head herd of cattle on pastureland, and he’s set aside about 400 acres of his land as restored to prairie, ponds, and stream protection.

But he’s not only engaged in building up his farmland, but he says he’s also been seeing better financial returns on his farming operations.

Watkins’ new methods are not simply a success in his own mind, either. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a new report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits, that suggests adopting Watkins’ methods can help build up soil and decrease water runoff and the resulting pollution. Now you will probably contend that the Union of Concerned Scientists is sort of a far-left group—and you’re right—but even far-lefties are right sometimes–or should I say correct. Especially when their research is backed up by studies from a place like Iowa State University.

An ISU study compared a typical Midwest two-year, corn-soybean crop rotation to three- and four-year rotations that added such crops as oats, red clover, alfalfa and other crops. The longer rotations of corn and soybeans actually increased their yields while also producing surprisingly large decreases in runoff of agricultural herbicides (between 81 and 96 percent), along with requiring a lot less (a decrease of between 43 and 57 percent) nitrogen fertilizer—a big money-saver.

So what Watkins and his fellow travelers appear to have done is reinvent the same kind of diversified farming that was the norm until the adoption of the modern corn-soybean system.

If you’ve read many of the posts here at History on the Fox, or if you read my weekly “Reflections” columns in Shaw Media’s Kendall County NOW newspapers, you already know that I regularly lament the death of diversified farming.

It keeps receding farther and farther into the mists of time, but when I was a little kid growing up on a farm about 10 miles east and a little south of where I’m sitting at my computer typing this post, diversified farming was ubiquitous; it was pretty much the definition of farming.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

In the summer of 1947, Russell Rink bales hay on a farm in east Oswego Township. At the time, hay crops such as alfalfa, clover, and timothy were grown on nearly every farm in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

My dad raised corn and soybeans, but he also raised oats, alfalfa, clover, and timothy, rotating those crops with a bit of pasture so that the soil had a chance to rest. While the soybeans were all sold as grain, some of the corn was fed to his cattle and the rest went to market. The oats, too, were sold as grain, but a fair portion of them were ground into coarse flour which was mixed with the milk that had been separated from the cream produced by our Guernsey cow, to make the “slop” that his feeder pigs seemed to love so much.

My mother traded the eggs her chickens produced for groceries at Michaels Brothers Grocery Store in Montgomery, and my parents sold the excess cream our cow produced at the creamery in Yorkville.

In those days, chemical fertilizer was only just becoming common. Instead of that, my dad spread the manure produced by the cattle and hogs he fed and the chickens my mother raised on his fields. In that way, the grain and hay crops fed to the livestock, and which they then processed into manure, was returned to the land in a pretty efficient cycle.

In 1950 when I was four years old, the federal agricultural census showed there were nearly 1,100 farms in Kendall County, of which 861 reported having some feeder cattle, 694 had at least one milk cow, and 741 reported raising hogs. All that livestock produced a LOT of manure, which was then returned to the land in lieu of chemical fertilizer.

R.D. Gates at home on his Minkler Road farm, ca 1895

R.D. Gates (center) proudly shows off his feeder hogs as his wife and daughter and hired man look in in this photo taken sometime in the fall of 1897. Most Kendall County farms once raised livestock along with grain. (Little White School Museum collection)

By 2012, the number of farms in Kendall County had dropped to 364, although to be fair they’d just about doubled in size. But there had also been a cataclysmic change in what was being produced on those farms. Of the 364, only 42 reported have some cattle around the place, just two had milk cows, and only nine were raising hogs.

In fact, just about the only reason most grain farmers raise any livestock at all these days is either as a hobby or because their kids are in 4-H, and with the aging of the farm population, that’s an increasingly rare thing as well.

In these modern times, were facing a real agricultural conundrum. Fewer and fewer farms are family-owned, and more and more are corporate operations. And as we all should know by now, corporations care about only one thing: The bottom line. Unlike family farmers who contemplate handing their operations down to the next generation, and so often feel it’s incumbent on them to take care of the land they farm, corporate interests are focused on profits, almost always on short-term profits which are often detrimental not only to the long-term interests of their firms, but sometimes to their entire industries.

So will Watkins’ ‘new’ farming method catch on? It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy, either. On many farms, the infrastructure that was formerly common—hog houses, barns, chicken houses, and other buildings—are long gone, replaced by grain storage bins and towering machine sheds built to house gigantic modern farm equipment. Raising livestock calls for different skills, too, and requires a lot more time. And is there a market for the oats and the alfalfa, timothy, and clover that my dad grew as fodder for his feeder cattle? Not unless more farmers decided to diversify.

But, maybe. Family farming operations will likely be more amenable to trying it because of their mindset, but maybe the corporations will surprise us all and decide to look beyond next quarter’s profits. Not likely, but possible…

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

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