Far from a collection of hippies, researchers from the USDA, Iowa State University, and University of Minnesota have concluded that a new and improved crop rotation plan could improve environmental sustainability, and boost profits for those who use it.
Between 2003 and 2011, at Iowa State, they tested the traditional farming plan against two alternatives, and found that the alternatives were more effective.
The traditional plan simply follows a two year cycle, where corn is grown one year and soybeans the next. This method has been criticized because the biodiversity is low, and large quantities of pesticides and fossil fuels are used up in the process.
Alongside it, they tried a 3 year rotation, where a more diverse species of oat was grown during one of the years. In another field, they grew alfalfa for the fourth year.
In the fields where additional crops were grown, the corn and soybean yields were actually higher than in the traditional fields, likely due to the fact that different crops drain the soil of different types of nutrients.
The researchers also discovered that they could use less fertilizer, as the plants grew more readily when the crops were rotated. Because of the enormous energy costs of trucking fertilizer around the country, this is an extremely important difference.
Not only that, but weeds cropped up less often in the diversified arrangement. The researchers were able to cut herbicide use by an incredible 88 percent, resulting in 200 times less impact on freshwater toxicity.
The only argument against the more diverse rotation was that it was more labor intensive. However, with an excess of unemployed and a relative energy shortage, this hardly counts as a problem with the method.