Innovative Iowa Project Offers Multiple Solutions to Complex but Related Challenges

August 13, 2020

A singular message promoted by Solutions from the Land is that the problems impacting our world can – and should – be dealt with simultaneously, as many approaches address multiple parts of these interrelated systems and can be optimized and consolidated if they are made available. Put another way, solutions that combine “all tools in the toolbox” are essential to face food system, nutrition, ecological, climate and public health challenges.

This interconnection among challenges and among solutions is underscored by a pilot project currently being designed, developed and undertaken by the Iowa Smart Agriculture (IASA) Work Group, which is supported by SfL. These agricultural thought leaders and value chain partners from around the state are together exploring and assessing the impacts that extreme weather events and changing climatic conditions are having and are expected to have on the state’s top industry.

Among the work group’s first orders of business is developing a potential research/demonstration project to explore the synergistic relationship between commodity crop growers and livestock producers using cover crops as a supplemental feedstock for anaerobic digesters.

Cover crops play an important role under one of the three pillars that guide climate smart agriculture, which emphasizes the ability to deliver ecosystem services and reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Planting cover crops between major food crop harvests sequesters carbon, increases organic matter in the soil, retains nutrients scavenged after crop harvests, improves soil moisture holding capacity, prevents soil erosion, deters nutrient runoff, alleviates soil compaction, and can even help to suppress some pests.

Once cover crops are terminated or harvested in anticipation of a new major crop planting, those residues can be used to supplement the materials (often animal waste) that power anaerobic digesters, which in turn produce renewable natural gas. That low-carbon gas can be used to produce electricity, fuel for vehicles or generate power, providing an additional opportunity to reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions by supplanting carbon-based sources like coal and petroleum products. Using cover crop residues as a firing source also contributes to the digester’s role of neutralizing the most powerful GHG from animal waste – methane – a gas nearly 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth, on a 100-year timescale.

The work group in Iowa is starting at ground level, addressing first the question of whether, in fact, there is a way to use cover crop residue as a feedstock supplement for digester efficiency. The group, which is working with the Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is looking into integrated cover crop-digester technologies from Missouri to Germany, searching for ways to make digesters profitable through co-products like fertilizer as well as renewable energy.

Discussion among work group members has also addressed the cost of anaerobic digesters, noting that given large upfront investments often being required, research is needed to address how to make digesters smaller and less costly to build or construct using a “hub and spoke” model.

Early work group discussions have raised the topic of relay cropping (essentially a special version of double cropping, where the second crop is planted into the first crop before harvest), which could maximize the productivity of a farm by keeping a crop on it for more of the year – a move that could also manage nutrient leaching and provide flexibility when weather becomes unpredictable, if not volatile. And, as with all SfL-promoted planning efforts, the group has agreed that farmers themselves, given their personal experiences with their operations, must guide the research that needs to be done.

The work group members are aware of the detail and effort required to bring the Iowa project home, and they a prepared to do the work. Their efforts serve to inspire, educate, and equip agricultural partners to innovate effective local adaptations that sustain productivity, enhance climate resilience, and contribute to the local and global goals for sustainable development.

The cross-sectional nature of the work group and its efforts reflect a “new norm” of diverse interests coming together to pursue solutions to challenges that constantly arise in a changing world. For these efforts to succeed, it is critical that policies enabling their recommendations – financing, research and land use, among others – are in place and fully supported by elected officials at all levels. SfL urges stakeholders to call on policy makers and drive home the need for them to support policies and programs that enable farmers, ranchers and foresters to deliver high value, near term solutions to climate and other sustainable development goals.

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