Circular systems make sense for Iowa farms

November 17, 2022

More than four years ago, the Iowa Smart Agriculture (IASA) Working Group, composed of Iowa farmers and value-chain partners concerned about the future of their livelihoods, came together for a discussion. They saw volatile markets, supply chain issues, extreme weather events and changing climatic conditions were making it more difficult to operate.

They explored questions like:

  • “What conditions are you facing on your farm or in your operation?”
  • “How much knowledge do farmers have about what the future might hold?”
  • “Are we adequately prepared with strategies and plans in place to help us meet current and future challenges?”

By the end of that July 9, 2018, talk in Corning, Iowa, the farmers realized their discussion had only just begun. After more than two years of additional conversation, IASA has released a white paper outlining its vision for Iowa agriculture and offering recommendations for farmers, public and private partners, and consumers working together to meet global challenges, like climate change.

IASA’s vision is to manage Iowa’s working landscapes to safely and sustainably provide an abundance of food, feed, fiber, and fuel, while protecting and building health in our soil; filtering and storing water; sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and ensuring economically compelling opportunities for our livestock producers, farmers, their families and communities.

The paper, “Iowa Smart Agriculture: Circles of Life, A Vision for the Future,” also offers a path forward for finding and putting in place Iowa solutions for the land and concludes with a farmer-to-farmer call to action in support of Iowa’s food system and agricultural economy. One key solution: circular systems.

About Circular Systems

Circular systems are dynamic, continually adjusting and adapting as other parts of the system shift and change. In agricultural production, they efficiently use resources from on and off the farm and produce multiple benefits:

  • Outputs (such as food, fiber, feed, renewable fuels and energy) for consumption beyond the farm gate.
  • Retained on-farm value, in the form of farm-produced inputs that substitute for off-farm resources (for example, livestock waste produced on-farm reducing need for purchased fertilizer).
  • Ecosystem services, like soil carbon sequestration, water cycling, and enhanced wildlife and biodiversity.
  • Improved livelihoods, health and well-being.

Innovative farm-level circular systems increase resilience, yield and profitability, income stability, water quality, soil carbon and other ecosystem services.

Circular systems, or the “circular economy,” has long been a concept used in discussions related to national and international discussions on reducing greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. It was referenced often by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and others at the United Nation’s International Climate Change Conference (COP27) and at numerous Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture meetings. Iowa farmers have led the way in advocating for agriculture as a solution to global challenges, in part through circular systems.

Real-World Examples

The report showcases examples of Iowa farmers—including IASA co-chairs Ray Gaesser, Bryan Sievers and Kellie Blair—using circular systems.

Gaesser, a corn and soybean farmer in Corning, works with local livestock producers to provide grazing—and manure fertilization—on his crop fields.

Sievers, from Stockton, runs a beef cattle feedlot that reuses and recycles cattle manure and industrial food waste from nearby food processors into biogas with two 970,000-gallon anaerobic digesters.  

Blair’s farm in Dayton produces co-products from corn, soybean and oats that can be used as inputs for their livestock production so there is no need to purchase feed grain or bedding off-farm. Manure and bedding outputs are recycled as compost to benefit crop production.

With the release of “Iowa Smart Agriculture: Circles of Life,” IASA invites all farmers and agricultural stakeholders to join the conversation. IASA will be moving into its second phase of work, forging consensus on the priority building blocks needed to achieve its vision.

Solutions From the Land applauds IASA’s leaders for their future vision and action plan for scaling up agricultural solutions to local, state, national and global challenges. We urge all agricultural and food system stakeholders to review this timely body of work and put in motion the pragmatic recommendations they offer.

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Our Vision

An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.