A crop-production report released today by USDA projects a record corn crop of 14 billion bushels this year. If the forecast is realized, U.S. farmers will have produced the largest corn crop ‑ and the third largest soybean crop – ever, and on less acres than were planted in 2012.
But the report offers more than just numbers on a page. It demonstrates how improved genetics, technology and land management practices have enabled U.S. agriculture to rebound from a devastating period of drought and flooding, and do it in a way that improves soil, water and air quality, and the environment.
Much of this year’s corn production has been driven by the ethanol market. And while there will be the usual misinformed, misguided and often deceptively derived criticism of the ethanol industry, the crop report shows that U.S. corn producers react to market signals and show they can meet the demands for food, feed, fiber and fuel.
The vast majority of farmers takes land stewardship responsibilities seriously and strives to maximize crop production in a way that protects the resources that provide them with a living and our nation with an affordable, abundant and safe food supply. Today’s crop report shows the longstanding upward trend of yields per acre that demonstrate farmers are getting more out of the resources they are given.
Evidence of producer’s commitments to stewardship has been documented by a Field to Market project. Using publicly available data, project researchers have found that from 1980 to 2011, corn productivity increased 64 percent, yet the land used for each bushel of corn fell 30 percent. The amount of irrigated water used dropped 50 percent, and the energy used in the production of each bushel decreased by 43 percent. These are impressive gains that should be recognized and celebrated.
An equally significant finding is that for each bushel of corn produced in the United States, soil loss plummeted by 67 percent – a clear demonstration of the efforts being made by U.S. agriculture to not only reduce the impact high levels of production have on the soil, but to improve the quality of that soil as well.
That’s not to say that there are no unwanted consequences resulting from the massive production cited in today’s USDA crop report. Spring floods put to the test the most ardent conservationists among today’s farmers. An all-time record for rainfall occurred in the Midwest, which has experienced massive drought over the previous two years, resulting in nitrogen and phosphorous leaching into some rivers and streams.
However, production agriculture, conservation and water stakeholders are partnering to implement the strategies which aims to reduce erosion and runoff, so the next time the “perfect storm” that occurred in the spring returns, nutrient losses will be significantly reduced.
A tangible demonstration of farmers’ efforts to work sustainably is the Indian Creek Watershed Project in Livingston County, IL, where a diverse collection of government, corporate and NGO partners are providing farmers with technical assistance and information to help implement new, small-plot conservation practices to minimize nutrient runoff on their farms. The project, which has worked to involve half the watershed’s 50,000 acres, has been showcasing real, profitable conservation systems by holding on-farm demonstrations and field days highlighting new and innovative water quality best management practices.
A recent Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) survey shows that farmers recognize the benefit of cover crops in reducing nutrient leaching and enhancing soil quality. In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, farmers registered an 11 percent yield increase for corn planted after cover crops, and a 14.3 percent increase for soybeans. The benefits of cover crops seen among all farmers surveyed was underscored by their plans to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops per farm in 2013, up 40 percent from an average of 303 acres in 2012, with growers citing soil health – including reduced compaction and soil erosion, and improved nutrient management ‑ as the chief driver.
Through the dedication of U.S. farmers and the science and technology they are adapting, agricultural production – including the production of first-generation biofuels ‑ continues to become increasingly efficient, generating increased yields and reducing energy and water use.
It’s a record of sustainability that adheres to the standards advocated by 25x’25 and the Sustainability Principles the alliance promotes as the ideal of stewardship. 25x’25 commends the efforts being made by U.S. producers to meet the nation’s food, feed, fiber and fuel needs in a viable and environmentally sensitive way. All producers, renewable energy stakeholders and policy makers are urged to adopt the alliance’s Sustainability Principles and continue the progress being made in the pursuit of a literally “clean” energy future.