“Scientists, farmers, agricultural industry leaders, and consumers of corn products increasingly recognize the need for more sustainable corn-based cropping systems. At the same time, they recognize the need to continue or even increase production in order to respond to the food needs of a growing world population. Reconciliation of agricultural production and ecosystem integrity goals presents a major challenge for science in the 21st century. Increasingly variable climate and extreme weather events add another layer of complexity and uncertainty, while also necessitating the systems to be resilient.”
Miller Magazine features Lynn Laws, Communications Specialist of Sustainable Corn Project this month. The Sustainable Corn Project gathers information from thousands of farmers with the goal of understanding how certain farm management practices might work together to provide resilience in times of need. Saying that many people are concerned about the potential detrimental effects of climate change to U.S. agriculture and soil and water resources, LAWS also states that scientists, farmers, agricultural industry leaders, and consumers of corn products increasingly recognize the need for more sustainable corn-based cropping systems.
Answering our questions about The Sustainable Corn Project, importance of corn, effects of climate change on corn and gains of the project, Lynn Laws reminds us that farmers are problem solvers and with access to sound science they are better able to identify, develop and adopt strategies necessary to build climate resilient cropping systems. We get the details from Laws.
Ms. Laws, first of all, could you introduce us The Sustainable Corn Project? What is the story behind your project? What can you say about the participants/funders of the project?
The Sustainable Corn Project is partially funded by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The five-year project (2011-2016) is led by Dr. Lois Wright Morton, at Iowa State University, who engaged teams of researchers, educators, extension specialists and staff from 10 land-grant universities and an Agricultural Research Service in the Upper Midwest – the Corn Belt of the United States.
The researchers studied farm practices at field sites in 9 states, and gathered information from thousands of Midwestern farmers with the goal of understanding how certain farm management practices might work together to provide resilience in times of drought, reduce soil and nutrient losses under saturated soil conditions, decrease field nitrogen losses, retain carbon in the soil, and ensure crop and soil productivity. The practices studied were extended crop rotations, cover crops, tillage and no-tillage, nitrogen sensing for optimal application rates, and drainage water management.
The institutions involved in the project are the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, Lincoln University, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, The Ohio State University, Purdue University, South Dakota State University, University of Wisconsin, and the Unites States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service.
As far as we know, the project is focusing on corn-based cropping. Could you explain us the importance of corn for America?
Over 400,000 US farms grow corn. This $80 billion commodity makes the United States a world leader in corn production. One-fourth of all US harvested crop acres are corn, with 65-70% grown in the Upper Midwest. The U.S. Midwest’s current climate and fertile soil make it one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.
What can you say about the climate change and its effects on crops, especially on corn?
It is unclear how global and discrete localized changes will impact crop production. Many people are concerned about the potential detrimental effects of climate change to U.S. agriculture and soil and water resources.
Midwestern United States temperatures have been quite different in terms of summer warming patterns compared to the rest of the country. The Southeastern US extending up into the lower Midwest is one of the only land areas on Earth that hasn’t warmed appreciably over the past century. Some call this region a “warming hole.”
The biggest change in terms of both the observations and the predictions is the increase in heavy rainfall. This trend of increased heavy rainfall is predicted to continue and to strengthen in the future 30 years. Loss of top soil and nutrients from farmland is already a concern. However, our studies have found that when used as part of a long-term (3+ years) soil conservation strategy, no-till can be implemented without yield penalty compared to more aggressive tillage systems in a corn-soybean rotation, under most Corn Belt environments. And drainage water management and cover crops can help in coping with heavy rainfall, preventing erosion, and controlling nutrient runoff.
As part of your project, what has been done so far? What are the accomplishments? Could you give us some information about your activities?
We have built a transdisciplinary network of people and research sites across nine Corn Belt states, consisting of 140 researchers, 160 farmers, 20 extension educators and 219 undergraduate and graduate students to develop and share science-based knowledge. Biophysical, climate and sociological data were collected, analyzed, and utilized in models to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the management practices.
Scientific findings have been reported in 154 refereed journal articles, 212 extension publications and 995 presentations to farmers and other agricultural stakeholders, resulting in a total audience reach of 89,824 since the project began in 2011.The team’s database and infrastructure are being extended as project investigators develop new partnerships and research teams. The expansive dataset will be made public post-project at the USDA National Agricultural Library.
Guidance for incorporating climate change education in university extension programs was developed. The Climate Change and Agricultural Extension report, developed in collaboration with USDA’s Useful to Usable project, includes social science research findings, recommendations and lessons learned when conveying climate science to farmers and other agriculture stakeholders.
A legacy of educational publications and videos for farmers and their advisers has been made available via land-grant university extension online stores, Midwest Regional Climate Centers, and the National Council for Science and the Environment’s website for K-12 educators.
Sustainability and productivity has been more important in the recent years. Could you tell us what the role of sustainability and productivity is in agriculture, especially nowadays?
The intensification of corn-based crop production over the years has had unintended environmental consequences. Scientists, farmers, agricultural industry leaders, and consumers of corn products increasingly recognize the need for more sustainable corn-based cropping systems. At the same time, they recognize the need to continue or even increase production in order to respond to the food needs of a growing world population. Reconciliation of agricultural production and ecosystem integrity goals presents a major challenge for science in the 21st century. Increasingly variable climate and extreme weather events add another layer of complexity and uncertainty, while also necessitating the systems to be resilient.
What do you think about the future of your country in terms of sustainable corn production and meeting the crop demand?
The impacts of climate change on Corn Belt agriculture will, in part, depend on the farm practices used by corn producers in the region. Farmers are problem solvers and with access to sound science they are better able to identify, develop and adopt strategies necessary to build climate resilient cropping systems. Our project and others like it will continue to advance the science needed and share it with decision-makers.
Are you carrying out any training/education works for younger generation of scientists or farmers?
I stated earlier that a total of 219 undergraduate and graduate students participated in our project. The 86 graduate students worked hard in their own particular science discipline and learned how to work with collaboratively with others in different disciplines to address complex, societal challenges, like climate change. There is also a publication which explains the research conducted by some of the graduate students on our project. This publication is also available on our website. (www.sustainablecorn.org)
In addition to the 160 farmers who participated in our project, all of our participating universities are “land-grant universities.” Land-grant universities have a mandate from the U.S. government to invest in all aspects of agricultural research; extend the findings of the research to agricultural stakeholders and help them apply practical solutions; and prepare young people for careers in agriculture and agricultural science. For our project, teams of researchers, students and farmers were formed to accomplish these goals.
What would you like to add?
Thank you for your interest in our project!