Seeking a Monoculture Mindset
As my son and I struggle on our farm to plan for the future, we have confronted some deep-seated biases that may be skewing our analytic process. And by "our" I mean "my," of course. One of these is an almost visceral aversion to growing all corn. But in the light of day, arguments favoring rotations are falling one by one:
Old reasons. Our agrarian heritage would not permit monocultures for several reasons, including agronomic arguments that follow, the need for feed self-sufficiency and the benefit of different planting and harvest times to spread labor demand. I think it is safe to say that 120' planters and new combines render this last reason groundless.
Pests. Crop rotation has long been preached to counter disease and pest problems. Early in my career, corn rootworms made the process of rotating with a nonhost crop mandatory. With the advent of Bt-RW corn, however, this need disappeared.
Rotation will select for pests that can survive rotation, as indicated by variant rootworms. Continuous corn would select for pests that thrive in corn only, which may repower the rotation effect. After 10 years of corn, bugs and possibly diseases would likely be obliterated by just one year of another crop. Regardless, the power of biotech to overcome pest and disease problems seems to be unraveling arguments for even a "duoculture."
N fixation. At the same time, work by agronomists suggests the soybean N-fixation credit could be dwarfed by the N contribution of properly decayed corn residue: another old rule of thumb overturned.
Is it riskier? It was commonly held that if one crop fails, another might make it. But as drought- and pest- resistant corn becomes standard, this argument is less compelling. Putting all your eggs in the most reliable basket may not be totally foolish.
Nor is there much evidence that depending on corn alone increases marketing risks. In fact, such specialization might prompt the development of unique methods of merchandising that are applicable to corn only.
Landscape. Mostly, however, I think the appearance of a landscape of all corn makes producers and even passersby uncomfortable. It is so far from what we view as our agrarian roots, and so…well, boring compared to delightful patches of different colors and textures.
More subtly, when our corn fields look like Brazil's soy fields, the scale of industrial agriculture will be obvious. This could cause problems for an industry trying to peddle a romantic,
agrarian family-farm image while panhandling for subsidies.
Not so new. Curiously, if Illinois, for example, were wall-to-wall corn, it might be more in keeping with our past than we think. As Charles Mann pointed out in the best-seller 1491, by the time Europeans arrived here, Native Americans had, by the repeated use of fire, produced a vast sea of prairie grasses. Even as late as 1900, my part of Illinois was little more than swampy savannah with buffalo grass overwhelmingly dominant.
Nor is monoculture nonexistent today. Consider wetland rice farming, the Mother of All Monocultures. Rotation proponents haven't decried that 6,000-year-old practice, so maybe my reverence for crop diversity is just a relatively modern farm fad. Or blatant prejudice.
Old-guy thinking. It would be interesting to see the demographic data on corn-only producers. My hunch is they are much younger on average than those of us who can remember four-year rotations.
If the economics continue to trend that way, corn monocultures could become more common simply by blending into a different generational status quo—just one more thing to harrumph about "what's wrong with young farmers." That irritation alone could spur more young producers to plant all corn, I'll bet.
Various early Mesoamerican cultures were referred to as "the People of Corn." Without compelling reasons to reverse the corn monoculture trend, I can see that label making a comeback.
John Phipps, email@example.com, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." For local station listings, log on to www.agweb.com.
Top Producer, Spring 2009