Building a perennial farm is hard, but our world needs more of them
If the taxpayers’ money is going to support agriculture, it should support those who provide ecosystem services.
I moved back to Iowa to farm with my family in 2010 and since then have witnessed major flooding and drought, torrential downpours of more than 10 inches at a time and month-long dry heat spells with no rain. This summer alone, our annual crops suffered from an unusual late frost near Memorial Day, tornadoes and wind damage and an increase in insect populations most likely caused by drought.
Each year in the past 10 I’ve heard my father say, “I’ve never seen this in my entire farming career.” And he’s been farming in Iowa for over 50 years.
Climate change is firmly and unequivocally here. According to the United Nations, we are locked into 30 years of worsening climate impacts no matter what the world does. This means the extreme droughts, severe heat waves, catastrophic downpours, flooding and storm systems creating derechos and tornados will continue and even worsen.
We cannot live in fear or despair. We need to work aggressively toward resiliency. Agriculture accounts for about a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions, and farms like our family farm are part of the problem — but also the solution.
Our annual cropping systems farm is energy-dependent. We use fossil fuels in almost everything to grow corn and soybeans, from the diesel in the tractor engines to the manufactured chemicals and fertilizers used to ensure a 220-bushel corn crop, to the natural gas to dry the corn in the bin. I feel stuck in this system, but if we want to remain in the business of farming today, we need to grow corn. Ask any farmer: If you switch to another grain or turn your high Corn Suitability Rating crop ground to pasture for grazing, you must consider the opportunity cost of corn, and hands down, you won’t make much money if anything at all. Especially with today’s current high prices of commodity crops.
Our other farm, Jóia Food Farm, is an oasis in a sea of corn and beans. We have planted thousands of trees and bushes, transitioned tillable corn acres to perennial pastures and are establishing silvopastures. We use adaptive grazing that helps strengthen and lengthen the grazing season as well as improve herd health. We are restoring a riparian area and propagating and planting trees for cleaner water and more stabilized stream banks. We invite grassland birds to nest by not mowing some pastures for winter hay until after nesting bird season ends, and we are planting Kernza as a transition to organic perennial crop. We also have several pollinator habitats and prairie plantings that support and increase wildlife populations.
We invite people to work/volunteer/intern/tour the farm, continuing to grow community around food and nature. And the vision of our farm is a collaborative one, joining more and more people together to grow food to feed the community we live in, bridging the urban and rural divide.
Today, the farmstead is surrounded by perennials for the first time in over 70 years, and we have created our very own resilient microclimate. It’s the most amazing feeling. And I want to do and see more of this.
Making enough money to build and grow a perennial farm is hard, and yet there is so much we are providing to mitigate climate change and help build a more attractive northeast Iowa: cleaner air and water. More carbon is sequestered in the ground. More biodiversity. More people on the land.