Farms and pastures take up a lot of space – 40 percent of the world’s land is used for agriculture – to feed the entire world, and then some, and inevitably cause significant environmental damage.
Agricultural practices contributed to 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus – standard soil nutrients found in manure or chemical fertilizers – can seep from cropland into nearby waterways and absorb oxygen in aquatic ecosystems, sometimes killing the creatures that call them home and even causing disease in humans …
Meanwhile, as the cost of fertilizer, equipment, and the land itself rises, “farmers have to cultivate more and more acres” to make ends meet, said landscape ecologist Lisa Schulte Moore. As farms find it increasingly difficult to be profitable enough to support people’s livelihoods, fewer and fewer farms are active, according to the USDA Agricultural Census every five years.
Schulte Moore believes that with the right approach, agriculture “can be the solution” to its own problems. “In fact, my entire focus is on how we design an agricultural system that not only helps us get what we need as humans – food, fiber and fuel – as the human population continues to grow, but also [in a way that has] it’s a much lighter footprint on the planet, ”she told PBS NewsHour.
Schulte Moore, professor of ecology and natural resource management and associate director of the Institute of Bioeconomics at Iowa State University, received MacArthur’s “Genius Grant” this year. She calls herself “the bridge man”.
“I bring people from different disciplines together to understand agriculture and possible solutions to these problems in a multidimensional context,” said Schulte Moore. “So, don’t just look at this from an ergonomic point of view or [natural resources, economic or sociological] perspective, but the unification of all these disciplines. ”
The approach she takes to her current job echoes her academic and professional experience in forestry and wildlife, which she brought with her when she left the Great Lakes region for Iowa and learned to apply her skills to agriculture.
The Iowa program, co-founded by Schulte Moore, known as STRIPS, or Evidence-Based Testing of Row Crop Integrated with Prairie Strips, is a prime example of how it works in action. By incorporating small patches of native prairie vegetation into agricultural fields that grow crops such as corn and soybeans, the program can help support biodiversity, reduce nutrient runoff, and improve soil health on participating farmlands.
To date, the program has helped farmers and landowners plant over 11,000 acres of prairie in 11 states. The fact that Schulte Moore and her team worked alongside agricultural professionals helped ensure that many stakeholders see practical, accessible and measurable results.
Schulte Moore spoke to PBS NewsHour about the challenges facing American farmers, how agriculture has developed in the United States over time, and how prairie strips benefit the landscape.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
How does your conversations with various stakeholders in the world of agriculture look like? Who have you collected?
I think many ideas start with Field Days, when people from all walks of life meet on the farm and talk about the farmer’s activities and what he or she is trying to achieve. If you’ve never been to a Midwest farmer’s field day, I recommend you do it someday. It’s a lot of fun, especially if the weather is good. From my point of view, some of the most creative solutions arise when you get these different people to talk together about a place and [say] “This is what I’m trying to achieve here, and this is how I do it.” And people start to come up with ideas like, “Oh, have you tried that? What about this? “And it will be a really fun brainstorming session.
What are the challenges facing the current agricultural system?
A key problem in the corn belt is the two-crop system, which leaves the land bare for most of the year. Farmers plant corn around April – depending on the weather, it could be early May. But the plant begins to wilt from late August to September, and then harvest, ideally in October. And the rest of the time there are no living plant roots in the ground. Soybeans are planted in May or, at the end of the year, in June, then harvested in September, and the land has no living roots for the rest of the year.
Cover crops [are] one solution people are looking at. The prairie strip – which my teams here helped develop – is another solution that doesn’t cover the entire field of a farm like cover crops, but it can be integrated into the fields and in really key ways that help reduce some of these problems. – erosion and loss of soil, filtration of water to retain agricultural chemicals in the field and outside of our waterways, as well as providing some shelter in this field, living roots to create soil.
What do prairie stripes look like?
We sow [prairie strips] from scratch in these agricultural fields … using a mixture of grasses and forbas or wildflowers from the region. We want to place the prairie strip in a location that will reduce the problem of soil loss. We also consider equipment that the farmer moves around the field because we want to try to reduce the impact on agricultural operations while eliminating resource constraints. And then we look at if there are any other environmental vulnerabilities associated with this land. Is there a site next to the stream? If so, we would like to try to reserve this and protect it. Is there a really low-lying area where the farmer is probably not getting a big harvest? [there] anyway, and he can also [leak nutrients into groundwater or generate] higher greenhouse gas emissions? This is another area that we will try to target with the prairie strip.
We work closely with farmers to create a seed mixture that [meets] your goals. This seed mixture [has ranged from 15 to 75 species.] We try to have a lot of herbs that are really good at protecting the soil and [have] bright root systems underground that [keeps] the soil is in place. We also include a wide range of wildflowers and [those] are really important from the point of view of biodiversity conservation. Herbs are good in terms of some of the soil and water conservation benefits, but if we also want the prairie strip to benefit the wild, then these wildflowers become incredibly important.
What’s next for you and your research in the short and long term?
One [thing] trying to determine how we can get more economic benefits for farmers from landscape coverage [in Iowa and the] Midwest.
When we talk about connecting people to the land and especially about developing opportunities for young producers, animal husbandry is the easiest way. And the easiest way to benefit from herbal material in an agricultural environment is to feed it to an animal. So [I’m] are looking for ways we can expand the use of grass material in livestock systems and develop new ways to help move livestock across the landscape to make it easier for both the pasture and the animals themselves. They do not need to get in and out of trucks when, for example, they need to move to different parts of the meadow to alternate pastures.
Third [thing I’m] The possibilities of carbon markets and how they are developing in the agriculture of the Midwest right now are being intensively explored. And then, as part of that, what part of the landscape would be most appropriate to focus on to create perennial vegetation? Where are the areas where we can maximize carbon sequestration and be compensated by farmers through carbon markets?
What does it mean to you to be a MacArthur guy?
He’s so huge. Obviously, this is a major lifelong achievement – very compelling. I tend to be someone who doesn’t follow traditional scientific stereotypes, like someone who builds bridges between disciplines rather than deepening. And as someone who spends a lot of time working outside the university, working on partnerships and working with farmers rather than traditional [type of] academic appointment. So this pretty much confirms my approach. I was told more than once to stay on my lane, but I could not do it. I couldn’t do it even if I tried, because it’s not in my nature.