Corn rows are being planted closer and closer together. Are twelve-inch rows really better for Iowans when we’re already dealing with a nutrient runoff nightmare?
by L. Dunham
The idea goes something like this: if we plant more corn per acre, farmers can generate higher yields and make more money. By planting corn closer together we can also help feed a growing population while conserving precious resources. New technologies have made it possible for Iowan crop farmers to plant corn in twelve-inch rows shaving inches off conventional twenty and thirty inch row widths. This has helped farmers increase the corn population from about 30,000 plants to 50,000 plants per acre! Sounds pretty great!…Right?
Actually, the jury has yet to decide. While these farmers expect to harvest greater yields, they are also using far more fertilizer, chemicals, and water to achieve these ends. In some cases, farmers are applying up to 500 units of nitrogen on acreages that only required half this amount. They are also making 2-3 extra passes with crop-dusters to keep pests and fungus at bay. Molds, in particular, thrive in a dense canopy of crop. This can become a problem later for animals eating corn when they ingest moldy mycotoxins. These fungi can also be a problem for subsequent plantings. To make matters worse, the additional fungicides used to control these molds are linked to the loss of pollinating honeybees – insects we depend upon for various types of food production.
So are the advantages really worth all of this trouble? Many ag-oriented states are already very concerned about nutrient pollution. Recent articles in Iowa’s largest newpapers, the Gazette and the Des Moines Register, have spoken to these concerns. Nitrate levels in watersheds and rivers were higher this year than they’ve ever been. In fact, they were so bad that the Des Moines Waterworks spent $7000 dollars per day for the last several months to make residents’ water safe for consumption. Meanwhile, farmers are being encouraged to plant more corn per acre, demanding even more nitrogen and water for the same amount of space.
The synthetic NPK fertilizers used today can create a nutrient management headache, especially when they are used in excess or washed away during a heavy rain. While yields might be superb during a relatively mild, natural disaster-free growing season, losses have the potential to be devastating during seasons that are too wet or too dry, as many Midwesterners have experienced in recent years. What’s more? Many of these synthetic fertilizers don’t contain adequate trace minerals essential for proper plant growth and health. To rectify the problem, farmers who are planting continuous corn and beans are sometimes applying foliar trace mineral supplements and manure applications in addition to their regular NPK applications. More inputs are needed to sustain each acre. When the trace minerals aren’t added, the resulting corn isn’t always fit to feed.
An argument could be made that a livestock/crop rotation might be healthier overall for this system. Both plants and animals depend on the trace minerals in quality manure fertilizers. Frequent animal and crop rotations might also help control some of the weeds and pests farmers currently use so many insecticides and herbicides to manage.
In my opinion, nutrient inputs of such high magnitudes should be illegal. Farmers shouldn’t be increasing the pounds of nitrogen added per acre by 20-50% when Iowa is already considered a major agricultural polluter. These issues will need to be addressed soon if Iowans hope to maintain their water quality, soil quality, and overall ecological health. Iowa is one of twelve states called upon by the EPA to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels contributing to water pollution and the enormous Dead Zone in the Gulf. As a result, Iowa now has a Nutrient Reduction Strategy to help it reduce nutrient runoff by 45% – a lofty goal that is highly dependent upon agricultural practices used throughout the state.
While the state intends to hold point-source polluters accountable, like factories and wastewater treatment plants, crop farmers are exempt from restrictions and regulations because they are considered nonpoint polluters. Instead, crop farmers are encouraged to take voluntary measures to reduce overall nutrient use.
From a regulatory angle, it would be very difficult to monitor and fine farmers for nutrient pollution originating on private properties. Farm runoff can be heavily dependent on soil type, weather, topography, and a range of other factors.
On the other hand, there are many things farmers can already do to reduce nutrient runoff on their properties. Our actions do affect waterways that humans have shared and valued since before recorded history. Planting twelve-inch rows and using gene technologies to increase a plant’s tolerance to pesticides ultimately only drive nutrient and chemical pollution up.
Such practices are disappointing, especially when we already have other technologies to feed each other without destroying our watersheds, not to mention those watersheds used by humans downstream. We have to stop pretending that GM corn and beans are the only innovative technologies available and start using more practices that will increase long-term yield and sustainability.
As it stands, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy will fall short of its goals. Farmers are not going to choose to make less money by voluntarily making changes when their neighbors aren’t doing the same. In fact, subsidized crop insurance policies insure that farmers will make money on steep, tightly packed row plantings even if their crops don’t produce. You’d have to be incredibly well intentioned or a fool to pass this free money up.
We need to decentivize this old system and encourage a new, more diverse agriculture. New innovations should focus on minimizing inputs as much as maximizing outputs.
So far, I’ve compiled the following list of ideas but would love some help. What do you think? Do you have any genius ideas to add to our growing list?
1. Place a tax on synthetic fertilizers. Use the funds generated to support on-farm conservation, especially in areas that shouldn’t be in crop ground anyway. This tax would encourage farmers to use on farm sources of manure as fertilizer, rather than synthetic NPK versions that don’t provide the same trace mineral benefits.
2. Place a tax on pesticides (fungicides, herbicides & insecticides). Use the funds to pay water treatment plants to remove these toxic chemicals. Ban and better regulate pesticides that negatively affect animal health, especially the health of pollinators.
3. Tie crop insurance to on-farm diversity and low input needs and/or low nutrient discharge measures. Currently crop insurance payouts are highest for those working in continuous corn and bean monoculture systems. Ironically, these systems are more likely to see nutrient loss in severe weather conditions.
4. Divert tax-dollars supplementing new fertilizer plants toward research that will generate healthier, more biologically active soils. Agroecology research groups should continue to research ways to lower nutrient input requirements by improving the trace mineral content and biological activity of farmed soils. Soils that have been in continuous corn for the last 30 years will continue to be deprived of the trace minerals specifically used by this monoculture system. They may also be lacking biologically active species that help harness nutrients due to the number of chemicals used on such a continuous basis.
5. Have another idea? Add it below.