Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Media Coverage


In their own words, how Americans are experiencing the climate crisis across the US

Publication: Independent UK

Author: Louise Boyle

Excerpt from article featuring The Land Institute:

Suzan Erem, 58, farmer and executive director of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust Iowa

“I transplanted here in the 1980s to go to college and learned about family farms and the crisis we were in then, when there appeared to be plans for corporate America to make Iowa look like one big cornfield. And they succeeded. Thirty years later, I came back and there it was.

Almost all of the family farms are gone. I was still in love with Iowa but it wasn’t the state that I fell in love with. But I moved back and got involved in organizing an effort to reduce the cost of farmland permanently, to grow sustainable food.

We started the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) to put an end to farm crises by taking land that grows table food off the market for everyone except other farmers who do the same thing.

I’ve been immersed in food farming and all the issues around land use in Iowa in the last ten years. I planted an orchard of Asian pears, Japanese walnuts, native elderberries, and Haskap berries. I thought, ‘fruit trees in Iowa, even with climate change how bad could it be?’

But there are a certain number of hours every year that those fruit trees need to be under 45 degrees [Fahrenheit]. And I’m beginning to discover that might not happen in a few years. We’ve already had some winters that it was hard to count that many hours under 45F.

It’s ironic to say that I live in Iowa and want it to be colder but if that’s the way you’ve planted, that’s what you’re counting on. We need a certain number of “chill hours” every winter for the trees to sleep so they’ll do what they need to, when it’s time to work. I’m starting to worry that’s not happening.

The other thing in Iowa that a lot of people didn’t hear about was the derecho with 140mph sustained winds [in August 2020]. It’s called an inland hurricane and so highly unusual that nobody was ready for it.

We were lucky that as few people got hurt, but the property damage was unbelievable. I was part of a chainsaw crew helping take trees down off houses. I remember somebody saying, ‘When I watched TV during Katrina and other hurricanes down south, I thought it was exaggerating to say it would take years to recover. Now I see what they mean. It’s going to take years to recover from this.’

Most of Iowa was in drought for much of this year and I don’t think it’s going to get any better. However, I still think that Iowa is one of the places where US climate refugees are going to end up. All the forecasts are that our weather is going to be better able to sustain human life than most of the continent.

It’s happening slowly but farmers and landowners are starting to understand the power of planting fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, not only to feed Iowans but to affect climate change. Historically, [farmers] only thought of trees as in the way, or as lumber or firewood.

My friends at the Savanna Institute in Madison, Wisconsin have a vision to perennialize 50 million acres in the Midwest. They, and the University of Missouri’s Agroforestry Center, are providing resources for landowners to plant tree crops like chestnuts that can live 2,000 years. Once [trees] are in the ground you’re not disturbing the soil, you’re running animals through them to graze, and sequestering carbon.

I am uplifted by the notion that more and more people in the Midwest are understanding the benefits of perennial crops. I think the research from The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas on perennial grains, and trials in Iowa and Minnesota, are nothing short of revolutionary. These things are going to be crucial if we want to feed our people and cool the planet. We have to find a new way to grow food. I don’t want to squander the resource of this beautiful soil.

In Iowa, you can grow anything, and we’re going to be able to year-round now with hoop houses, solar energy, and geothermal. I’m convinced that with the right people and the right capital, we will be able to transform this landscape and it’s going to be a lot friendlier for the climate, and much more resilient.”

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