Are farmers and environmentalists teaming up?

rotating crops in a field
© Johann Stubhan/Shutterstock

Farmers and environmentalists aren't always the best of friends. Farmers run businesses; they try to make a profit. That often means growing endless acres of corn or soybeans and harvesting constantly.

Here's why that's an issue: If you've ever pulled a few all-nighters in a row, you understand the importance of rest. Soil needs rest too in order to replenish nutrients. Traditionally, that's meant rotating crops, rather than growing the same crop in the same area constantly.

“I think farmers in today’s world are looking for reasons to avoid growing in a monoculture. They’re looking to diversify and rotate their systems," says Gevan Behnke, a crop sciences researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "If they’re doing that partially out of a concern for the environment, well, it lowers greenhouse gasses. And it could potentially result in a substantial yield increase."

To figure out if rotating crops actually does lower carbon emissions and/or save money, Behnke teamed up with a number of University of Illinois scientists. They studied corn and soybean fields, some of which had been rotated (or not rotated) for over 20 years.

“These long-term plots are very stable systems. Sometimes you don’t see the impacts of rotation or tillage for years after those practices are imposed. That’s one of the highlights of this study,” Behnke added.

The scientists found that rotating crops did better. On average, rotating corn yields 20 percent more corn. Plus, the fields end up with 35 percent less nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that comes from fertilizer. This gas is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

So if you're a farmer, you might want to think about rotating your crops. Soil needs its beauty sleep too.

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