Photo Credit: Shelby Gruss
Diverse perennial circular forage systems have the potential to foster agricultural resilience across the U.S. These systems, along with supportive policy and economic measures, can help overcome existing vulnerabilities in U.S. agriculture. As researchers and stakeholders, we are engaged in collaborative efforts to foster knowledge and adoption of diverse perennial circular forage systems as a critical pathway towards greater resilience of farms, agricultural communities, and agricultural economies.
Prevailing agricultural systems in the U.S. are among the world’s most productive. Ever- increasing demands for food, feed, fiber, and fuel has driven the development of an industrial U.S. agricultural economy since the mid-20th century (Dimitri et al., 2005). Unprecedented innovation in technology and engineering, and research in the crop and animal sciences has supported this industrialization to help agriculture meet domestic and global needs. As productivity has risen though, there has been a rise in undesirable and unintended consequences to people and planet, some of them quite serious. Consequences of industrial agriculture intensification include air and water pollution, soil loss and degradation, loss of biodiversity, and increasing dependence on fossil fuels (Alteri, 1998; Houser and Stuart, 2020). Perhaps most critical though, is loss of resilience – the ability to withstand and rapidly recover from major disruption or crisis such as extreme weather, climate change, market shocks, and pandemics (Bowles et al., 2020; Picasso et al., 2019). As a result, agriculture – and the many farms that make up the agriculture sector, are vulnerable to negative consequences that are difficult to overcome through current practices and existing policies (Darnhofer, 2021; Lioutas and Charatsari, 2021).
Four year old grass and alfalfa mixture trial
Silvopasture, untilizing land with woodland and grass pasture
Vulnerability in U.S. agriculture can be addressed through adoption of agricultural systems that increase resilience within fields, farms, and agricultural sectors. Such systems share three common features: diversity, perenniality, and circularity. Diverse systems include multiple species of crops and forages over time through crop rotations, and spatial diversity through intercropping with multiple crop species. Perennial systems include perennial crops or include cover crops in crop rotations. Circular systems recycle nutrients within the field rather than allowing them to move off-field and off-farm where they can become pollution (Jurgilevich et al., 2016). Because forages are highly adaptable to a wide range of environmental, grazing and/or harvest conditions, they are also an essential component for agricultural resilience. Critical innovation is needed to transform agricultural systems towards greater resilience through the incorporation of the four features described above. We are innovating the needed transformation.
Our research, education, and outreach aims to improve resilience in agriculture by putting diverse perennial circular systems to work for farmers and consumers. Central to all of our efforts is the National Farm Pairs Network. The Network iscomposed of farmers across the U.S. whose cropping systems and farming practices span the spectrum from annual crops without rotations to highly diverse crop rotations with perennial forages. Participating farmers provide our researchers with real-world data about their crops and soils, as well as socioeconomic factors that influence their decision-making. These data help us conduct robust analyses to illuminate the challenges to resilience in U.S. agriculture and how diverse perennial circular systems can help boost agricultural resilience.
- Alteri, M. 1998. Ecological impacts of industrial agriculture and the possibilities for truily sustainable farming. Monthly Review 50(3).
- Bowles, T.M., Mooshammer, M., Socolar, Y., Calderón, F., Cavigelli, M.A., Culman, S.W., Deen, W., Drury, C.F., Garcia y Garcia, A., Gaudin, A.C.M., Harkcom, W.S., Lehman, R.M., Osborne, S.L., Robertson, G.P., Salerno, J., Schmer, M.R., Strock, J., and Grandy, A.S. 2020. Long-term evidence shows that crop-rotation diversification increases agricultural resilience to adverse growing conditions in North America. One Earth 2,284-293.
- Darnhofer, I. 2021. Resilience or how do we enable agricultural systems to ride the waves of unexpected change? Agricultural Systems 187.
- Dimitri, C., Effland, A. and Conklin, N. 2005. The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm policy. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin Number 3.
- Houser, M. and Stuart, D. 2019. An accelerating treadmill and an overlooked contradiction in industrial agriculture: Climate change and nitrogen fertilizer. Journal of Agrarian Change 20(2).
- Jurgilevich, A., Birge, T., Kentala-Lehtonen, J., Korhonen-Kurki, K., Pietikäinen, J., Saikku, L., and Schösler, H. 2016. Transition towards circular economy in the food system. Sustainability 8:69.
- Lioutas, E.D., and Charatsari, C. 2021. Enhancing the ability of agriculture to cope with major crises or disaster: What the experience of COVID-19 teaches us. Agricultural Systems 187.
- Picasso, V., Casler, M., and Undersander, D. 2019. Resilience, stability, and productivity of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) cultivars in rainfed regions of North America. Crop Science 59:1-11.