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Diversity project strives for resiliency
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Diversity project strives for resiliency

Making Midwestern agriculture more resilient by diversifying farms, marketing and the agricultural landscape is the aim of a new $10 million project that’s being funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The project is led by Purdue University with several partner institutions involved.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Platteville as well as the University of Minnesota are among the partners. The project is called “#DiverseCornBelt: Resilient Intensification through Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture.”

“We’ve all heard of hedging a bet or diversifying a portfolio to be able to weather ups and downs, and this is the same concept,” said Linda Prokopy, project leader – and department head and professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Purdue University. “What’s new is that market and environmental research tailored to the Corn Belt will inform our next moves, and individual farmers and stakeholders will be involved in every step of the process. Growing only a rotation of corn and soybeans is not necessarily sustainable economically, environmentally or socially. We’ll be working with farmers to evaluate alternative cropping systems that can be used in the Midwest.”

Researchers will work with farmers in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. They’ll be evaluating small grains and-or forage crops in rotations, perennial forage or bioenergy crops, agroforestry, horticultural food crops and grazed livestock.

How environmental planning and social science are integrated into environmental and natural-resources management will be addressed by Ken Genskow, a professor and UW-Extension specialist in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture. He will share his experience in collaborative efforts related to natural-resource issues. He has developed processes to involve farmers and the types of questions needed to be asked.

The overall project, he said, will include economic, biophysical and rural-community modeling.

“I enjoy working on modeling results; they spark conversations and structure,” he said.

He’ll also be working with cooperating organizations to identify landowners and farmers, including those who question the feasibility of changing current crop-production practices.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to look into the future and what we – as a society – can do to make it more sustainable with the people who’ll need to make changes on the landscape,” he said.

Peter Lammers, an associate professor in the School of Agriculture at UW-Platteville, also is involved in the project. He’s developing curricula for undergraduate, technical-college and high school audiences. Educational modules will be built upon existing programs for those groups. They’ll be expanded upon and available to be adopted by faculty at different institutions.

“We’ll also be preparing a multi-state seminar-type class and will take students to different farming operations,” he said. “I’m excited about the broad array of scientists working on (the project). We can interact with them to work on the big challenges. I’m looking forward to starting on the project.”

Ian Kaplan, professor of entomology at Purdue University, said the project will involve collecting large-scale field information – such as soil health, water quality and insect diversity – across a wide range of cropping systems that vary from traditional corn monocultures to greatly diversified farms.

“The sampling effort will test how diversification practices at realistic spatial scales impact biophysical variables important to farmers,” he said. “By measuring the variables we’ll be able to understand how the implementation of specific farming practices simultaneously affect agroecosystem function, crop yields and long-term sustainability.”

Stakeholder listening sessions, surveys and interviews also will inform the five-year project, Prokopy said.

“We’ll examine the environmental costs and benefits of diversified systems through on-farm research, as well as identify economic and social barriers to change,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic showed us the lack of resilience in our current system and how farmers suffered because of it. We hope such pandemics will be rare, but we can’t say the same about climate change. There will be challenges ahead and we must prepare for the future. We hope the project will bring together farmers, researchers and the agri-food community to figure out how.”

The #DiverseCornBelt-Extension program will support farmers and local markets as they transition to a more-diverse environment.

Elizabeth Maynard is a Purdue University-Extension specialist and clinical-engagement associate professor of horticulture and landscape architecture.

“We don’t know what kinds of diversification the project will identify as the most promising,” she said. “But the Extension team will be ready to get the word out, help stakeholders evaluate the findings and provide resources needed to make changes for a more-sustainable Midwest agriculture.”

Farmers, agricultural advisers and marketers, community leaders and other landowners who are interested in participating through surveys, interviews and stakeholder-listening sessions should email lprokopy@purdue.edu for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

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