What can researchers learn about ecosystems and the environment during the total solar eclipse?

The recent blinding dust storm that caused fatal highway crashes in central Illinois where Interstate 55 passes through flat farmland was a result of an unusually dry April. 

Windy weather arrived during the period when many farm fields were being plowed in preparation for spring planting — as farmers have done for years or even generations. But these dry, bare fields left the soil unprotected, ready to be swept up by the wind.

Soil is a finite resource — the foundation of our food supply and habitat for about a quarter of the world’s biodiversity. Soil is one of the earth’s greatest carbon-capturing systems. When it blows away with the wind, it’s always a tragic loss — even when it doesn’t cause fatal car crashes. 

Many people were quick to blame the plowing of farm fields as the main cause of this calamity. But the reality is far more complicated.

In the short-term, plowing — or tilling, to use the agricultural term — is an effective strategy to prepare for planting, suppress weeds, and incorporate fertilizer deeper into the soil where plant roots can access it. For farmers, it’s long been a rational choice to maximize their productivity and profitability. 

But these days, weather patterns are changing so rapidly due to climate change that it’s nearly impossible for farmers to adapt quickly enough. Long-standing practices that enabled plentiful and profitable food production appear to be no longer sustainable. We now know that, over the long term, extensive tilling can result in slow but steady soil loss, leading to lower productivity and profitability. And yet, while conventional tilling may no longer be the best approach for many growers, transitioning to new practices is fraught with challenges — including the need to invest in new equipment and relearn a craft they’ve perfected over many years. 

The Illinois dust storm should serve as a wake-up call for society and especially the government. What can we do to support our farming community through this transition and avoid this from happening again? 

Thanks to technological innovations, farmers have new options to maintain productivity while protecting and preserving their soil. Farming can reduce or even eliminate tilling thanks to seed drills that can penetrate through crop residues and plant seeds deep in the soil. We can also keep soil anchored by keeping roots in the ground year-round through the use of cover crops, which also help divert carbon into the ground and further stimulate soil health. Where tilling is necessary, GPS-guided tractors can limit the soil disruption to narrow strips, where precision planters can then place the seeds. These various methods are part of an approach to environmentally farming known as regenerative agriculture.  

Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits of these practices, adoption rates remain low for no-till or low-till farming. Using satellite data combined with machine learning, for example, we found that only 7% of Illinois farmland is planted with cover crops between growing seasons, only 43% use low-till methods and only 29% employ no-till techniques.   

Why this slow adoption of regenerative practices? The reality is that farmers are trying to make rational, well-informed decisions. But, too often, the costs of cover-crop seeds and other necessary new equipment appear to outweigh the benefit to the farmer, at least in the short term. 

And so far, the additional benefits of improved soil health can sometimes be hard to quantify and predict. Yet, an emerging scientific consensus suggests that the long-term benefits of these regenerative agriculture practices could offset the short-term challenges — especially when we look beyond the farmgate to consider various related benefits, such as long-term soil health, water quality and biodiversity. 

So how do we effectively foster the adoption of regenerative practices that can benefit farmers, the environment and society? We can begin by recognizing the importance of protecting our soils and working across traditional boundaries to foster the adoption of regenerative practices. This will require investment in research demonstration and technical assistance programs, as well as creative financing to enable farmers to adopt the new methods and equipment. And public policies on conservation and crop insurance need to be updated and adapted to encourage and reward innovation and adaptation by the farmers on the ground. 

Governments and private organizations can provide financial and technical assistance to farmers to help them make the transition to regenerative agriculture. Ideally, too, there could be market mechanisms by companies in the food and agriculture industries to give incentives to farmers to adopt these practices. And consumers, especially ones willing to pay a premium for food they know has been sustainably grown, can be an important force for change. Market motives might prove a more long-term solution than shorter-term government inducements.

There’s a precedent for this sort of collaborative action. Although the Great Dust Bowl is fading in our collective memory, we must not forget the important lessons learned in April 1935 when red Oklahoma dirt blew all the way into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. In response, lawmakers, farmers, and society came together to institute ambitious new programs that set the stage for better conservation practices, farmer support and investments in technological research. 

Today, in the face of climate change, the situation is no less urgent. Recognizing that we all have a stake in making farming more sustainable will not only help prevent tragedies like the one in Illinois. It will lead to a more sustainable and prosperous future for all, by enabling the global farming community to feed the world while restoring the earth.

Matthew Wallenstein is Chief Soil Scientist at Syngenta Group and Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University. Kaiyu Guan is the Director and Blue Waters Professor of the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

For more ag news and opinions, visit Agri-Pulse.com.

We are so proud to be a part of this documentary the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) produced about our home state’s environmental work, entitled “Sustaining Our Future: A Farm Family Story”. We are proud to be part of this journey to work with the families and individuals to help their bottom line while also advancing agricultural sustainability on our land.

Conceptual framework for quantifying cover crop adoption in the U.S. Midwest using multi-source satellite fusion data from 2000 to 2021. (a) Average corn and soybean fraction of each county (counties with corn and soybean cropland fraction of less than 40% are excluded). (b) Example of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) time series of a typical cover crop field. By excluding soil backgrounds and cash crop signals, the accumulated NDVI signals (dashed region) are identified as cover crop features. (c) Climatic variables (temperatures, precipitation, and vapor pressure deficit VPD), soil variables (clay, sand, silt, and soil organic carbon SOC), and geographic location are used to develop machine learning models to predict cover crop feature thresholds over space and time. (d) Cover crop fields were identified by comparing the thresholds and cover crop features. Credit: Geophysical Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1029/2022GL100249

Cover crops, with their ability to reduce erosion and promote soil health, are being planted across more U.S. Midwestern land than ever. That’s according to new University of Illinois research showing that cover crop adoption reached 7.2% in 2021, up from just 1.8% a decade prior. The finding is the result of sophisticated satellite-based remote sensing efforts that accurately detected cover crops across 140 million acres of cropland and tracked their expansion over 20 years.

The article, “Recent rapid increase of cover crop adoption across the U.S. Midwest detected by fusing multi-source satellite data,” is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“It’s impossible to do field surveys for the whole Midwest. And so, remote sensing can provide a cost-effective approach for cover crop detection. We can monitor every field from the very beginning to the end of the year, giving us a clear idea of what happened over time,” says Qu Zhou, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES), part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois. Zhou is supervised by Kaiyu Guan, associate professor in NRES, founding director of the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center, and senior author on the study.

The uptick in cover crop adoption comes against a backdrop of increasing state and federal incentive programs, a statistically significant driver, according to the study.

“We analyzed the area of cover crops in each year with that year’s funding and we found that it’s highly correlated. We also checked the investments across different states, showing some states have higher cover crop percentages that are related to their funding investment,” says Sheng Wang, research assistant professor in NRES and study co-author.

To understand the impacts of conservation policies, the team first had to assess the extent of cover crop adoption across the region, a technical challenge. On-the-ground surveys are accurate, but are time-consuming and difficult to scale up. Previous remote-sensing-based estimates of cover crops lost ground-based accuracy in favor of greater spatial coverage. However, the majority of remote-sensing studies focused on smaller areas, such as single states, and couldn’t be reliably scaled nationwide.

In the new study, Guan’s team developed a novel algorithm to detect cover crops from space, integrating a detailed understanding of cover crop growth with machine learning and creating high-resolution maps for the entire Midwest region.

To the untrained eye, satellite vegetation data looks like a massive green blur across the landscape. Figuring out which greens actually represented cover crops was a matter of timing. The researchers developed algorithms to watch for bare soils turning green between April and May, when most cover crops are actively growing, then for soils to emerge again once cover crops were terminated and before cash crop growth began.

Once they locked on that particular pulse of green, avoiding patchy or asynchronous greening that would indicate weed growth in fields, the researchers developed dynamic thresholds to identify signals of cover crops, as their growth varies from region to region and year to year.

“We compared our satellite data with census data for 2012-2017, and validated it against field-based data from almost all the available sources we could find, including our partners, the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Indiana Department of Agriculture. So we are confident we were detecting cover crops with high fidelity in our model,” Guan says. “Every study has uncertainties, but I think this is so far the most certain answer.”

“Leveraging remote sensing and novel algorithms gives us confidence that the federal crop insurance program is being administered effectively,” says James Hipple, RMA senior physical scientist and a co-author of the study. “Additionally, it helps us better understand the impact of USDA’s efforts to support farmers who implement cover crops. In recent years, USDA has stepped up its support for this important conservation practice, including adding premium benefits for producers who plant cover crops, a new partnership with Farmers for Soil Health, increases in technical and financial assistance for cover crop adoption, and added flexibilities for haying, grazing and chopping cover crops.”

The most significant gains in cover crop adoption occurred in recent years and were strongly correlated with the onset of cover crop assistance programs. For example, funding for cost-share programs increased from $5 million in 2005 to $156 million in 2018, with the greatest rate of investment after 2015. Cover crop adoption doubled across the region between 2017 and 2021.

Although 7.2% adoption represents a four-fold increase since 2011, it’s still a very small percentage.

“From a policy perspective, we are overly reliant on cost-share assistance for this practice, but we do see innovation,” says co-author Jonathan Coppess, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, also part of the College of ACES at Illinois. “For example, Illinois and Iowa have led the way using a discount in crop insurance premiums for adopting cover crops and both have proven popular at a relatively low cost. USDA experimented with it as well recently. Much more innovation in the policy is needed if we are to help transition to widespread adoption and successful management of this practice. The policies need to incorporate risk components and do more than merely cover a portion of the cost.”

Cover crops represent a potential risk in terms of the spring planting window, in which farmers must quickly terminate cover crops and get cash crop seeds planted amid increasingly challenging weather conditions. But perhaps more notably, if not managed properly, cover crops can be associated with yield penalties affecting cash crops in the following season. A recent Stanford University-led study, which relied on Guan’s satellite imagery and analysis of cover crops in the Midwest, indicated cover crops can decrease corn yield by around 5%.

“At the moment, cover cropping remains something for innovators and early adopters; it hasn’t taken hold as a common practice,” Coppess says. “A big part of the problem is that adding cover crops to the rotation is a systems change for the farmer and the fields. It adds cost, risk, and management challenges, but important learning is happening among innovators and farmers are gaining valuable experience.”

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The climate deal reached last week by Senate Democrats could reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that American farmers produce by expanding programs that help accumulate carbon in soil, fund climate-focused research and lower the abundant methane emissions that come from cows.

The bill includes more than $20 billion to improve the agriculture sector’s impact on the environment, mostly by expanding existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that help farmers change to better practices. Farmers would be paid to improve the health of their soil, withstand extreme weather and protect their land if the bill is enacted.

The roughly $370 billion climate and energy spending deal would bring the country closer to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, according to new analyses. That is something many scientists say is important, and that President Joe Biden promised. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., a long-time holdout on climate legislation, endorsed measures that would benefit electric vehicles, renewable energy and climate-friendly farming. Agriculture is responsible for 11% of the country’s climate-warming emissions.

The funding would expand programs favored by both environmental groups and the agricultural sector, said Ben Thomas, who focuses on agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“They are voluntary, they are incentive-based, they get results in terms of implementing conservation practices on working lands,” said Thomas. “It’s great to see.”

Thomas said historically, the agricultural sector has not aggressively tackled its contribution to climate change, but that hesitation has shifted in recent years and more money will accelerate progress. There’s a lot of potential, he said.

“It is worth taking very, very seriously,” Thomas said.

Cows belch an enormous amount of methane and agriculture is responsible for more than one-third of human-caused methane emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is a way that people’s diets — if they are high in meat or dairy — contribute to greenhouse gas buildup. The bill directs funds towards altering what cows eat to reduce those emissions.

On farms, soil can hold or sequester carbon if it is left undisturbed and covered by a crop. Money from the bill will expand programs that help farmers turn their soil less, implement climate-friendly crop rotation practices and plant cover crops that aren’t for harvest but improve soil health.

“The historic funding validates the fact that these practices are important,” said Ranjani Prabhakar, an agriculture and climate policy specialist at the environmental group Earthjustice

Cover crops, for example, are only used by a fraction of farmers. If their use were to triple — from around 5% of cropland to 15% — it could remove the equivalent of 14 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, roughly the total annual emissions of New Hampshire, according to Kevin Karl, a food and climate researcher at Columbia University.

“The adoption rate is so low,” Karl said. “There’s a lot of potential improvement.”

Federal officials already offer farmers help with a variety of environmentally-focused issues including irrigation and fertilizer use. One program helps fund conservation easements for agricultural land.

Dan Sheafer works on nitrogen research with the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association and operates a 20-acre farm. He plants cover crops and keeps soil disturbance to a minimum — practices that benefit soil health and reduce soil erosion. But he said cover crops also have drawbacks, requiring farmers who want an environmental benefit to change their practices.

“There’s just more time involved with doing cover crops,” he said.

The bill also includes money for research. While it is clear that managing soil properly can capture carbon, more needs to be known about important questions like how long sequestered carbon stays in soil.

Kaiyu Guan, a professor focused on climate and agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, said some people believe farmers don’t pay enough attention to climate change.

“I think farmers shouldn’t be blamed, they actually should be incentivized,” Guan said. “Not only are they doing this to be part of the solution to help the climate, they are doing this to help their land.”

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment.