Restoration Agriculture

By: Woody Woodruff

Recently, I have been working a lot with perennial cropping systems.  Perennial crops are plants that do not need to be re-established year after year. Nuts, berries, and things like asparagus are all prime examples of perennial crops. Putting all these perennials together to best utilize their different needs for sun, shade, wet soil, or dry soil is a cropping system. Illinois Stewardship Alliance has been a long time partner of an organization with a focus on perennial cropping systems called Green Lands Blue Waters. This coming year we will also be working with The Land Institute, home of noted author; Wes Jackson. Becoming Native to this Place is one of my favorite books written by Wes.

Excitingly, ISA is working with these two organizations to introduce Kernza, a type of perennial wheat that has been developed by The Land Institute.  Kernza has many opportunities as a perennial crop in Illinois. It functions like a perennial grass in conservation, can be grazed by livestock (yes, grazing livestock can be part of a cropping system), and if left to head out into seed can be harvested for grain to make flour. Using Kernza in these different ways makes it fit perfectly into a healthy perennial system.

Roots of intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial grain candidate compared to those of annual wheat (at left in each panel)

Roots of Kernza, a perennial wheat variety, compared to those of annual wheat (at left in each panel)

I met a group of grad students from the University of Illinois that are working on a Multifunctional Perennial Cropping Systems Project in Central Illinois. They are transforming marginal cropland into a more sustainable, diversified conservation cropping system. The goal is to increase income opportunities through locally sourced food markets. This type of system has a far healthier impact on the environment than say a sterile mono-cultured corn and soybean rotation does. Not only are the locally sourced nuts, berries, and herbs that make up perennial cropping systems in high demand with increased premiums, so are the livestock that graze the systems. This type of system not only provides healthier products, it makes the whole environmental system healthier. We play a key part in managing that system.

How does this fit into the title of Restoration Agriculture. You see it’s all rooted back into the soil. Our current cropping system of growing corn and beans from 90 to 140 days, then tilling the soil and applying propane-based fertilizers is in no way sustainable in maintaining healthy soil. The negative affect that we have had on our soil health and water quality is now evident in our own health as well as our planet’s. Raising only annuals like corn and using fall tillage after harvest makes as much sense as trying to survive winter without clothes and food. This type of seasonal cropping system protects the soil for, at most, 6 months of the year, while depleting soil organic matter and allowing top soil to erode the remainder of the year. Add in the high need for synthetic inputs and it is easy to see we have a problem with sustainability. Perennial cropping systems will protect and build soil health in all 12 months of the year and they require little to no inputs. We need to restore our soil health so it can function properly in producing local, healthy food and in regulating a healthy environment.

In Illinois, most landowners or operators would claim that they have no marginal land to which they could apply this type of perennial cropping system, but I see a place on every farm where this system could be applied and which could make huge impacts on creating a more diverse and sustaining food production system as well as protecting our natural resources. Field borders, wind breaks, filter strips, and riparian buffers are great examples of conservation practices that can be used on many farms, and in addition they are the perfect location to start perennial cropping systems. Installing these types of conservation practices comes with financial incentives from the current USDA Farm Bill.  Unfortunately, many of the human food perennial species are currently not on the approved list of plants that can be used for USDA funded conservation practices. That means that currently, planting food sources in your field borders or using them as your windbreak makes you ineligible for USDA conservation incentive programs. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still be using conservation practices or doubling up your conservation efforts by planting perennial food sources, it simply means that we need to lobby for these types of plants to be approved for use in the 2018 USDA Farm Bill. That Farm Bill should be focused on ways agriculture can affect our climate and our food in a more positive, sustainable manner. With luck, planting or maintaining food grade species that make up perennial cropping systems will be incentivized in the future, and it’s never too early to start thinking ahead! If you believe this type of practice (adding food value to our conservation practices) without affecting the practice’s functionality is a good idea, then support this type of movement to a more sustaining food system and contact your local legislator and ask him or her to add more crop diversity to America’s cropping system. Even better, apply the practice to your own food system is how your voice is heard. If you’re not a grower, but love to eat and want to support these types of conservation practices, vote with your fork and buy only grass fed beef or tree nut fed hogs. Always buy local and diversify your own diet. Land owners, please consider making some changes to your goals and thinking more long term about the types and diversity of foods that we can grow in Illinois. Our agricultural practices must build soils; these soils will in turn provide us with healthy food, filter our drinking water supply, and preserve the environment for generations to come.