Tracing Crop Rotations Through Time: A Search for Sustainability
"Good farming is a profession of peace and cooperation with the earth. It is work that calls for wise, sensitive people who are not ashamed to love their land, who will treat it with understanding and care, and who will perceive its future as their own.”
Crop rotations provide many benefits to farmers, ecological systems, and the human community. The proof of this can be seen through historical analysis and investigation into modern agricultural practices. A study conducted in Minnesota in 2003 by Porter et al. proved that external inputs actually mask the true value of crop rotation. With current practices of high fertilizer and pesticide use the real abilities of crop rotations to take care of soil fertilization, pest control, and weed control on their own becomes buried under the tons of external inputs. Other studies have illustrated that crop rotation can take care of these important agricultural needs even better than the modern engineered chemicals. A study conducted in 1995 by Jordan et al. attests that crop rotation can help with weed control, especially with a diverse crop rotation. In addition to a diverse crop rotation, a study also conducted in 1995 by Moomaw suggests adding cover crops to the soil in the winter to help reduce soil erosion. This is another sustainable agricultural practice that when paired with crop rotation can bring about beneficial results and save money on fertilizer.
Three studies conducted in 1989 by Crookston and Kurle, 1992 by Copeland and Crookston, and in 2004 Wilhelm and Wortman each look at the corn-soybean rotation in relation to another element, such as crop residues, nutrient accumulation, and weather, and conclude that rotation, in all these cases, grants more yields than continuous cropping methods. The fact that even this dual rotation can provide positive results in such research illustrates the importance of and need for crop rotations.
What is the future of crop rotation?
During both World Wars, the Scandinavian people would have starved to death were it not for their setup of rural life. There were enough small farms that could continue producing enough food for their people during the war. The Scandinavians know the importance of this way of life and that is why they "heavily subsidize their small self-subsistent farms and actually use economic sanctions to penalize their large factory farms (Logsdon 2000)." The United States needs to take a leaf from the Scandinavians book; maybe not quite in the same way, but perhaps by considering the harm factory farms are doing to the environment and the health of the population and tax them accordingly. Perhaps the U.S. should not grant aid to these large farms and instead create legislation that might actually aid the small family farmer instead of the corporation. In a conference held in 1990 about groundwater contamination the suggestion was made to invoke "the Environmental Stewardship Plan which encourages low-input agricultural production and compensates producers for crop rotations, biological controls, experimenting and adopting best management practices, and other techniques aimed at reducing chemical applications to the cropland (Schnepf)." This is the type of action that the government needs to take in order to encourage sustainable agricultural practices.
In addition, research funding needs to be applied to the discovery of more sustainable agricultural practices that have goals leading to long-term, healthy solutions instead of biotechnology which has neither of those goals in mind. With the unknown affects climate change will bring to agriculture more research is a necessity. Through research already performed we known that crop rotation can help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released from agricultural fields (Rosenzweig and Hillel 1998). The importance of research in the area of sustainable agriculture cannot be emphasized enough. Encouragingly, the field of agroecology, an ideology developed by Stephen R. Gliessman that is defined as "the science of ecology applied to solving agricultural production problems," is growing rapidly (Soule and Piper 1992). A sustainable future for agriculture seems to be on the rise.
Sustainable Crop Rotations for the Midwest
Rotation #1: Looking to the Past
60 acres in corn, 30 acres of oats, 30 acres of soybeans, and 30 acres of alfalfa completing a rotation every four to five years (Jackson, Berry, and Colman 1984)
Rotation #2: Learning from other Communities
An Amish farm of 83 acres in northern Indiana:
"Every fall [the farmer] puts in a new seeding of alfalfa with his wheat; every spring he plows down an old stand of alfalfa, 'no matter how good it is.' From alfalfa he goes to corn for two years, planting 30 acres, 25 for ear corn and five for silage. After the second year of corn, he sows oats in the spring, wheat and alfalfa in the fall. In the fourth year the wheat is harvested; the alfalfa then comes on and remains through the fifth and sixth years. Two cuttings of alfalfa are taken each year (Jackson, Berry, and Colman 1984)."
For this rotation the grazing pattern of livestock must be taken into account so that the two mesh together. The benefits that arise from the integration of livestock with crop rotation are exhibited in this cropping pattern.
Rotation #3: Leading the Way
An example for Minnesota straight from those who wrote the book:
In this four-year crop rotation plants have been chosen that alternate deep-rooted crops with shallow-rooted crops, as well as alternative warm-season crops with cool-season crops. Ideally crops should also be chosen that will break pest and weed cycles (Bird, Bultena, and Gardner 1995).
Year 1 - Spring Wheat (shallow-rooted, cool season, early-planted)
The first three years of this rotation will produce a cash crop while the fourth year will produce no crop, but allow the soil some time for replenishment.
Rotation #4: Listening to your Place
This crop rotation was implemented in 1993 on 44 acres of farmland owned by St. Olaf College as part of a sustainable agriculture project (Bakko).
Year 1 - Corn
See the results from this study.
Crop rotation is a valuable method of sustainable agriculture that illustrates the communal benefits gained from integrating agriculture with nature. Farmers are able to decrease their dependence on inputs and become stewards of the land, listening and learning from all that it has to teach. They no longer need to worry about the health risks for themselves and their families that accompany heavy usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farm work can revive traditional rituals that build strong communities and gain valuable help from and restore cooperation among neighbors. The ecological processes are able to operate in a healthy cycle, enriching the world with biodiversity and bountiful gifts. Through such harmony between the land and its farmers, humanity can enjoy a livelihood fully content with functioning off of stored sunshine.