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Reshaping the Corn Belt: Ohio farmers are changing how they farm to be more climate-friendly

This is the first installment of Reshaping the Corn Belt: How farming is turning to the past to grow its future. Other stories with a focus on regenerative agriculture will be aired and published over the next few months.

Butterflies and bees flutter through the knee-high grass in the field next to the Butler County Soil and Water Conservation offices. An orchestra of early morning birds, bush crickets and insects perform their late-summer songs.

The field is covered with plants like radishes, milkweed and legumes. It might look like a patch of wild flowers and weeds, but these plants serve a purpose.

Two dozen farmers are huddled in this eight acre plot to learn more about how using these plants — called cover crops — make the soil healthier.

The Butler County agriculture conservation education site was established in 2019. The field demonstrates different practices such as grassed waterways, pollinator plots and cover crops.

Randall Reeder, a retired Ohio State University agricultural researcher, asks the gathered farmers how many of them plant cover crops. About five raise their hands. He tells them they’ve come to the right place.

Reeder is president of the Ohio No-Till Council and an advocate for regenerative farming practices.

“Regenerative means that we want to take our farmland back to the way it used to be and improve it, improve soil health, and increase yields,” he said.

Post World War II, farmers shifted toward more industrial practices. They used fertilizers and tilled the soil to remove weeds, which led to bountiful harvests. But that came with drawbacks. Those practices led to depleted soils, erosion and contaminated water, and contributed to climate change.

Consequently much of the organic matter in farmland soil has been lost. A 2021 study estimates the corn belt has lost about 35% of its topsoil to erosion as a result of plowing.

“The ideal field at that time, just before planting, was to just look across the field and not a speck of weeds or anything, it was just all bare dark soil,” Reeder said.

Some farmers want to change this ideal. That means not tilling and instead planting cover crops.

Cover crops are planted after a harvest. The crop mix varies depending on if the field will be planted with corn, soy or wheat for the next growing season.

Cover crops have deep roots, so soil doesn’t wash away. They restore nutrients to the soil, so fertilizers aren’t as necessary. They also capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

The economic benefits are abundant, too — farmers save on fuel, equipment wear, fertilizer and other costs.

George Derringer, a retired Ohio soil scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said conventional farming has taken a toll on the land.

“It’s a real problem, the organic matter levels have been reduced and that is the base of the biology food chain. And the longer it's conventionally tilled, the organic matter continues to decline,” he said.

Regenerative farming, if adopted widely, can increase the soil's organic matter, Derringer said. That leads to healthier farm fields and better yields.

“We don't even know all the life that exists underneath our feet, in our fields,” Derringer said. “We can actually build it up to where it can regain some of that productivity and maybe a lot of it, if we really stick with it for years and years.”

State and federal tax dollars are also flowing to promote these practices. That includes over $200 million in the H2Ohio program to curb fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie and other waterways.

The program, launched in 2019, has enrolled over 1 million acres of farmland into a management practice that minimizes phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie. That runoff causes harmful, toxic algal blooms in the summer.

Some of the USDA Ohio Natural Resources Conservation Service funding to incentivize farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin to try out cover crops now has been made available to all farmers across Ohio.

Billions in the federal Inflation Reduction Act are earmarked toward voluntary government incentive programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Both initiatives provide farmers with technical or financial assistance to implement some sort of conservation practice into their farm.

Joe Krajicek, a third generation farmer in Greene County has been doing no-till and cover crops for several years through those two programs.

Driving on his utility vehicle, Krajicek points to his soybean, corn, wheat, and alfalfa field that he rotates where he plants cover crops. The landscape looks different than it did when his grandfather farmed the land, and wildlife is more prevalent.

"One of the noticeable things, when you're putting radishes and oats as cover crops, the deer they forage, you’ll see the birds a wildlife thrive in those areas,” Krajicek said. “The ecosystems are working. So it's a big, big change in everything.”

Getting to this point requires patience, he cautioned.

“It's a five or six year endeavor to really see the results from it and to feel comfortable with it,” Krajicek said.

Over 100,000 acres of farmland in Ohio converted to some sort of regenerative agriculture practice last year, according to the Ohio NRCS.

But No-till and cover crops usage in Ohio and across the Midwest remains in the minority of the industry. Most farmers still till their land with subsoilers that till deep into the soil or shallow tillers to remove weeds.

Conventional farmers remain reluctant to change practices, Reeder said. The programs for farmers need to focus more on education to get them to really embrace regenerative agriculture.

“It's like a lot of other stories. You could have 10 success stories that are kind of wiped out by one bad example. And I think that there's a resistance to change. Hey, we all go through that. We're accustomed to doing things the way we've been doing it,” he said.

Derringer cautioned a lot is at stake if more farmers don’t adapt soon.

“If we don't change those ways, that's even going to get worse. So less percentage of our land will be able to produce at full potential,” he said. “And we're getting more and more people, not less. So how are we going to feed all those folk if we don't do a better job at taking care of the soil that's here now?”

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.
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Alejandro Figueroa