Funders Network supports innovative multi-cropping initiative for soil health and farmer prosperity

RC&D partners with pioneering farmer Loran Steinlage in West Union trial

The Northeast Iowa Funders Network has invested in the Northeast Iowa Resource and Conservation Development (RC&D) Multi-Cropping Iowa initiative. The Funders Network is made up of representatives from area community foundations seeking to fund innovative projects that support rural vitality, retain local wealth, and strengthen Northeast Iowa for the future.

Farmers in northeast Iowa are piloting the multi-cropping program, which is drawing attention across the country and internationally. Multi-Cropping Iowa is working with over a dozen producers across Eastern Iowa to implement multi-crop trials and better understand the agronomic, economic and environmental impacts of multi-cropping.

When multiple crops are planted together, often soybeans and a cereal grain like barley or rye, producers in the trials have seen first-year returns 2.5 to 4.5 times higher than monocrop soybeans. Input costs are reduced because weeds are suppressed by the cereal grain, and field traffic is minimized. Crop diversification also helps farmers stabilize profits in an unstable market.

“With two crops, I’m self-insured,” says West Union farmer Loran Steinlage, who was one of the first in the United States to try multi-cropping. Now, crop insurers are studying projects like Steinlage’s to build new policies for this type of farming. Steinlage practices relay cropping by planting rye in the fall, planting soybeans in spring, and then harvesting the rye as the beans continue to grow. His farm is more profitable — and he’s more relaxed — than ever before, even though he farms fewer acres than in previous years. 

RC&D started working with Steinlage and looking for other farmers to adopt his practices as part of its mission to protect the Turkey River watershed by reducing flooding and improving water quality. They hosted an informational meeting to find out who would be interested in learning more, and over 40 farmers from Iowa and beyond showed up. 

“Year-round living roots in the soil through multi-cropping reduces the amount of nutrients leaving the state by improving soil health,” says Ross Evelsizer, natural resource projects director at RC&D. Healthy soil absorbs heavy rainfall and withstands drought conditions, both beneficial to the farmer. Because water is absorbed by the land, flood risk is reduced, surface runoff is minimized, and water quality is improved. 

More plant species in the same area also promotes diversity in soil microbes and fungi activity, which crops need to grow strong and healthy. Early studies suggest that in as few as four years, multi-cropping practices could close the soil health gap between agricultural and native perennial lands. 

The challenge comes in where farmers can sell their cereal grains, because there’s a smaller market for these grains than for corn or soybeans. The Funders Network provided a grant to help RC&D and farmers like Steinlage explore the market for small grain. The Network is made up of representatives from the Allamakee County Community Foundation, Chickasaw County Community Foundation, Clayton County Foundation for the Future, Howard County Community Foundation and Winneshiek County Community Foundation.

Support from the Funders Network is allowing RC&D to develop a business expansion plan that will identify opportunities for small businesses, locally-sourced products and economic growth throughout Northeast Iowa based on increased adoption of relay cropping and the resulting increase in small grain production. Today, RC&D is researching potential connections with local brewers and bakers, cereal producers, and the sale of high-demand small grain seed for cover crops in other parts of the country. A trial with a mobile flour mill may show one way for producers to bring their wheat to market more efficiently.

M.J. Smith and Terry Gaumer represent the network on behalf of co-conveners Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa, respectively.

“The Funders Network was excited to learn about this project and support farmers in our part of the state and potentially across the world,” says Smith. 

Steinlage hosted the Funders Network at his farm last month. He’s built an engaged Twitter following of farmers from around the world who share their ideas, successes and challenges around multicropping. “I want to be looking ahead far enough that when the time comes to try something, we’re ready to leap,” he says. He is leading the way for many farmers to become more successful while also protecting the environment, and with support from organizations like RC&D and the Funders Network, his success will be amplified by many.