In the 20th century, Decatur-based companies and Central Illinois farmers changed the agricultural landscape with soybeans and the agricultural economy with ethanol. Local farmers, businesses, and scientists can collaborate for agricultural innovation again in the 21st century. Perennial crops grown for multiple uses can enhance the environmental and economic performance of modern agriculture.

Soybeans were introduced as an agricultural crop in the U.S. by pioneering farmers like Charles Meharry who planted 19 acres for hay and seed on his family’s Champaign County farm in 1909. Soybean acreage grew slowly until 1921 when A.E. Staley announced plans for a soybean crushing plant in Decatur. With a commercial market assured, more farmers began growing soybeans in rotation with corn. University agronomists developed improved soybean varieties. Staley company researchers developed many food and non-food uses.

When Archer Daniels Midland began producing ethanol in Decatur in 1978, farming became a source of bioenergy. This new use for corn affected the agricultural economy but did not significantly change the landscape. By then, nearly all Central Illinois farmland was used to grow corn and soybeans.

New technologies enabled the shift from grain-livestock operations to grain-only farming that began shortly after World War II. The Haber-Bosch process uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel for nitrogen fixation. During the war, this process was used to manufacture munitions. After the war, it was used to make nitrogen fertilizer that could replace manure and allow increased yields from new hybrid corn seeds. Illinois grain was shipped to feed animals in distant feedlots. Between 1950 and 1975, pasture and hay declined from about 18 percent of total farmed acres to less than 5 percent in east-central Illinois.

The corn-soy system is highly productive but brings with it some serious adverse impacts, notably including soil erosion and nutrient loss. Agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, including nitrous oxide from fertilized soils, are a climate concern. Perennial crops can reduce these problems and can also improve soil health and wildlife habitat.

Perennial plants live for at least three years, regenerating each spring from their roots, unlike annual plants that grow from seed and then die each year. Trees, shrubs, and most herbaceous plants are perennial, but grain crops are annual. The Agricultural Watershed Institute is a nonprofit member of Green Lands Blue Waters, a regional partnership that also includes university scientists. AWI and GLBW have a long-range vision and strategy for perennial crops and cover crops to enhance the environmental and economic performance of Midwestern agriculture.

Conservation benefits of deep-rooted perennial plants are well known. USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program provides incentives for native prairie grasses and other perennials planted for wildlife and soil conservation. Perennial cropping systems can provide soil, water, wildlife, and climate benefits comparable to CRP acreage yet still produce harvested crops. Strategically converting erodible slopes and poorly drained soils in the Lake Decatur watershed to perennial crops such as switchgrass, Prairie cordgrass, and grass-legume mixtures grown for forage, bioenergy or bioproducts could significantly reduce sediment, nitrate, and phosphorus in the Lake.

In 2018, AWI helped to launch a multi-state Perennial Biomass Initiative associated with GLBW. A long-term goal is to increase perennial crop acreage on Upper Midwest farms by about 15 percent of total farmed acres, i.e. to roughly the same level as in 1950.

Our Theory of Change to achieve this transformational vision emphasizes synergistic efforts by scientists, farmers, nonprofits, industry, entrepreneurs, government, and funders. Activities to increase adoption and benefits of perennial biomass crops are (1) plant breeding for crop improvement; (2) on-farm demonstrations and research; and (3) development of uses and markets plus policy incentives for the environmental benefits. Promising near-term uses for biomass include animal feed, animal bedding, industrial absorbents, and heating.

A paradigm shift is needed to improve the environmental, economic, and social outcomes of agriculture. Multi-functional perennial cropping systems can be a key component. Today, scientists and nonprofits are partnering with the 21st century counterparts of farmer Charles Meharry and industrialist A.E. Staley. I do not suggest this shift will be easy. I do believe it is achievable and well worth the effort. Local farmers, landowners, businesses, and other stakeholders are invited to get involved.

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Steve John is the executive director of the Agricultural Watershed Institute, a Decatur-based nonprofit.


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