A 50-Year Farm Bill: Perennial Plants and Ecosystem-Based Agriculture

Perennial plants might play a big role in the future of U.S. agriculture and the Farm Bill, ushering us out of the “Age of Monoculture.”


Originally published in 2007, “Food Fight” is Daniel Imhoff's highly acclaimed primer on the complex issues contained within the Farm Bill. Now in a newly updated and expanded edition, Imhoff looks ahead at this important issue, as the debate for 2012 is already underway.


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Every five to seven years, Congress passes a little understood legislation called the Farm Bill. To a large extent, the Farm Bill writes the rules and sets the playing field for the contemporary U.S. food system, determining what we eat, how much it costs and where it is grown. You may not be happy with what you learn. In this excerpt from Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight (Watershed Media, 2012), read about how the Farm Bill could lead us from the “Age of Monoculture” into the “Age of Perennials.” The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 21, “The Next 50 Years: Perennialization and Ecosystem-Based Agriculture.” Stop by our online store's promotional page to purchase Food Fight at a 25-percent discount until the end of 2012. 

Ours is the Age of Monoculture. Farmers reap ever-increasing annual harvests by planting hybrid varieties, pumping them up with fossil fuel fertilizers, and managing them with pesticides, herbicides, and industrial machinery. A drive through rural North America can appear eerily sterile — feed corn, soybeans, wheat, or cotton as far as the eye can see, uninterrupted by so much as an acre of natural habitat.

In response to grave concerns that this soil-depleting industrial food system will eventually collapse, a new vision for agriculture is emerging: the Age of Perennials. This idea rests on a transition to deep-rooted, diverse, long-lived perennial plants that cover and permanently protect the soil, and don’t need to be re-seeded annually. Rather than being mechanically imposed on the landscape, a perennial mixture would be designed around natural ecosystems’ processes. Renewable resources like sunshine, groundwater management, and nutrient cycling would drive the production process.

According to the Salina, Kansas-based Land Institute, the goals of perennial farming include:

  • Extending the productive life of soils from the current tens or hundreds of years to thousands of years;
  • Developing resilience to extreme rainfall, droughts, and insect and pest pressures;
  • Reducing land runoff that creates coastal dead zones with disastrous effects on fisheries;
  • Maintaining the quality of surface and ground water;
  • Building food security to deal with population growth.

Starting With Perennial Grasses

Already we have one common perennial agriculture system: hay and pasture-based grazing operations. Pastures can be comprised of a variety of perennials such as timothy, orchard grass, clover, and alfalfa. Some farms and ranches are exclusively devoted to grass-fed livestock production, while others rotate row crops with pastures to restore the soil, prevent pest buildups, and diversify the products they sell. Increasingly, orchards and vineyards are turning to permanent ground cover as well, and incorporating livestock grazing during certain times of the year. Such perennial farming systems are essential for regions like the Upper Mississippi watershed, where decades of erosion and leaching nutrients have resulted in a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

A 12-year research program conducted by Minnesota’s Chippewa River Watershed Project has been studying this type of solution. Scientists have documented that where there are concentrations of perennial plants, significant reductions in soil sediments and agricultural nutrients in surrounding watersheds follow. Their findings suggest that if just 10 percent of critical lands in the Chippewa watershed were converted to rotations of pastures and other perennial crops and habitats, the surrounding waterways would see measurable improvements in water quality.

Critics frequently argue that shifting to such diversified agricultural methods is a luxury the world can’t afford; that only chemical- and technology-intensive farming can provide the volume of food necessary for a growing population. Peer-reviewed studies increasingly show the opposite, however. Sustainable agriculture systems are highly productive, and also have other benefits — such as a reduced carbon footprint, the elimination of toxic chemicals, prevention of soil loss, habitat protection, and beauty.

Modern farmers have developed sophisticated and profitable systems — including organic, biodynamic, and rotational grazing practices — based on the interplay of ecology and farming. This marriage of specialties is referred to as agroecology. Great strides already have been made in the production of dairy and beef cattle, swine, and poultry on small- and large-scale pasture operations. Animals are being raised in appropriate numbers and are not solely dependent on trucked-in feed. As in a healthy ecosystem, their wastes become soil nutrients rather than toxic byproducts that overflow into watersheds.

The Next Step: Perennial Grains

Science is now on taking on a new agroecological frontier: perennial grains. Perennials have many ecological advantages over annual crops. Because they live longer and develop deep roots over time, perennial plants have greater access to ground water. Also, those deep root systems make them less susceptible to wind and rain, protecting the soil from erosion.

Innovative research has been underway for decades at the Land Institute, Washington State University, and other institutions to cross-breed food crops with close wild perennial relatives. The goal is to develop commercially viable perennial grains, oil seeds, and other crops that would form the foundation of enduring farming practices that don’t compromise the soil, poison the environment, or degrade water quality. One can imagine, for example, a farm field dominated by perennial wheat or sunflowers that can remain productive for many years, without the need for annual tilling, reseeding, or applying heavy doses of chemicals.

The next leap forward in agroecology may not be that far off. According to the Land Institute, research in Canada, Australia, China, and the United States suggests that perennialization of major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed within the next several decades.

Toward a 50-Year Farm Bill

Just as in the days of the Dust Bowl, when the country faced devastating losses of soils, the Farm Bill presents the country’s primary tool for ushering in a new generation of agricultural thinking. It is, after all, the main economic mechanism we have for accounting for things that the market does not address: stewardship and health. Because it is renewed regularly every five to seven years, the Farm Bill also presents a path that can be assessed and updated at regular intervals.

A coalition of organizations and sustainable farming advocates, led by Land Institute founder Wes Jackson and author Wendell Berry, and farmer-philosopher Fred Kirschenmann, has called for perennialization to become a focus of Farm Bill spending over the next 50 years. U.S. Department of Agriculture funding from the Farm Bill could jump-start this urgently needed transition. And with its countrywide reach and mission to safeguard the food system, the USDA is poised to take the lead, as it previously did with the industrialization of farming. It already has a network of research and extension services, sizable budget, and interactions with tens of thousands of farmers and landowners.

Transitioning from the age of monoculture to the age of perennials and ecosystem-based farming will be a long process. The Land Institute’s June 2009 report “A 50-Year Farm Bill” asserts that such a revolution in farming is attainable if only we choose to realign priorities to achieve it. But these changes lie well within the capacities of American farmers working the world’s best soils, and all can be achieved on current levels of federal funding. It is a question of realigning incentives so that the self-interests of the farmer coincide with the collective long-term interests of the nation.

Fifty years may not be enough time for a complete transformation of the food system, but the challenges are so urgent we simply have no time to waste.

More From Food Fight:
American Farmers: An Endangered Species
Corn Ethanol: Growing Food, Feed, Fiber … and Fuel? 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Food Fight, published by Watershed Media, 2012. Visit the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store's promotional page before the end of 2012 to buy Food Fight at a 25 percent discount. 

erin lum
7/11/2012 5:42:43 AM

It's a start. Recognizing there is a problem in the current farm system, and especially recognizing that it is going to fail unless there is a change to sustainability and environmental responibility is an important first step. It's an addiction we are all tied into. The red flag warnings are up, we know we are doomed to fail and bring others down with us. But just like. You can't force true rehabilitation, you can't force industrial or private producers to change when they won't accept that they have a problem that getting out of control. Keep trying, keep identifying problems and lean to change, and pray we as a society and a planet do not have to hit rock bottom with these addicts before they accept there is a problem, they've no true stability in the current system, they are hurting themslves/us/planet, are powerless unless change, and have there wherewithall to make a change insted of blame others and whine that they are victims. It takes us all. Kudos to Congress for saying change is needed. Intervention time.

7/11/2012 12:36:18 AM

Steve S., …what's YOUR answer to the PRIVATE people who own those 'huge' acreages, some of which was purchased by the families over the last 150 years as the EARNED enough money to buy it up? They didn’t steal it, even if GGGGrandpa fought Native Americans over it, the guy running it NOW didn’t steal it. Do you buy it by force at bargain basement prices? What if they don't want to sell 1/2, or 1/3, or ANY even at Fair Market value? Do you 'nationalize' [read that as STEAL] it to fulfill that dream? Breaking up private property, by going it to people who ‘deserve’ it, is called Socialism or Communism. This isn’t a Communist / Socialist country. Not yet anyway, so we CAN’T nationalize property, regardless of the good it might do. Not yet anyway......................But I like your getting people back on the land thing, it’s a great idea. But it has holes too. Again, who buys that land for them? Who gives them loans while they get started and until they become profitable? What if they DON'T become profitable? Who eats it? Or, like during the Depression when banks got land rich, does the bank who was tasked with FORCING Farmer Brown to sell to the new farmer family get the land? Or can Brown buy it back? Tough questions all..........................There are an awful lot of questions that simply can't be answered with farm bills. They seem to open two new holes for everyone they 'fix' in our problems.......I'm not a farmer, but I married into a family who were farmers and agri business people. I grew up around cattle. I think the biggest thing we need is an END to subsidies! Let the free market set the prices. I know a man who got out of tobacco when he saw the trend of people going away from smoking. His was a third generation tobacco farm, but he got out. That was almost 40 years ago now. Mr. Parker always said he hated dealing with tobacco subsidies and quotas. He said it was an evil that only helped tobacco companies and politicians and producers who should have been growing squash! I expect squash farmers think their bad producers need to be growing tomatoes, or celery, or tobacco. ............Again, I'm not a farmer, but I worked a few years in the poultry industry and heard similar things about that industry. and subsidies...I grew up around cattle...same deal. The ONLY people who rely on subsidies are producers who learn to rely on them They hurt good producers and keep bad ones in business, which raises prices and hurts the consumers. (I used to run restaurants, there's NO restaurant subsidy! I was a mechanic for a while, there's NO garage subsidy! Why should farmers get them if the aren't good operators?) It's agri-welfare at best and just costs us as tax payers lotsa money at the worst....................I see the multi crop thing as a tough sell because of the cost of multiple machines / implements needed for running multi-crop farms of any size. I won’t revisit breaking up big farms. And what IS a big farm, BTW? And I think planning anything 50 years out is laughable. I don't care who plans it, we'll have 6, 7 or even 10 or more Administrations in 50 years, all set to make the country right and undo what harm the LAST guy did, according to this and that admin.. No one can plan around that, and I shudder to think what happens if EITHER party gets total control for 50 years! given some of the boneheaded moves we've seen in the last 20 years.

steve shroyer
7/4/2012 5:53:54 PM

A re-worked version of the Farm Bill is not going to set agriculture aright in our country. We need to put our energies to abolishing the Farm Bill. So long as giant corporations and individuals privately own enormous acreages, they will continue to view farming as an industrial enterprise. Politicians and corporate decision-makers cannot manage land they don't live on or even see. "Get big or get out" doesn't work. It won't work with perennials. I think we need to spend our energies answering the question " How do we get people back on the land?" Individuals on small holdings making their own decisions about what to raise to feed themselves and their neighbors worked once and it will work again. Let's end the industrial agriculture experiment.