A growing number of people in Iowa agriculture agree: It’s time to think “outside the box.” More specifically, it’s time to think circularly.
Ray Gaesser, a corn and soybean farmer in Corning, Iowa, and co-chair of Iowa Smart Agriculture, along with co-chairs Bryan Sievers and Kellie Blair, is encouraged by all the talk about circular systems in his state. More than two dozen farmers and innovators were involved in writing “Iowa Smart Agriculture: Circles of Life, A Vision for the Future,” which includes examples of how they use circular practices on their farms. Gaesser gives special thanks to lead writers Dr. Lois Wright Morton, former professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University, and Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, in addition to Sievers and Blair.
Iowa Smart Agriculture views circular systems as key to building resilience in agriculture, not just in the Midwest but across the world. IASA released the white paper at the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last November. Now IASA is continuing the conversation back home, with an opportunity for Iowa neighbors to meet and exchange ideas.
The Iowa Smart Agriculture: Circles of Life Forum will take place June 6-7, 2023, at the World Food Prize Hall in Des Moines, thanks to a generous partnership with the World Food Prize Foundation and other sponsors. All farmers and agriculture partners across the state are invited come learn about and see circular systems in action.
What are circular systems?
Circular thinking calls for farmers and processors within all sectors of agriculture to band together and find ways to use and reuse resources in their individual operations and among themselves, reducing waste and adding value for everyone involved—including the land itself and all of society.
Gaesser’s circular story starts with corn. His family sells their corn to the ethanol plant 14 miles down the road, where it is turned into renewable fuel. The distillers dried grains (DDGS), or leftover protein from the corn, go to feed chickens, cattle and pigs at neighboring farms. And the Gaessers, in turn, purchase manure from those livestock farms to fertilize their crop fields.
In the past decade, Gaesser added an additional circle to the farm with cover crops. The cover crops build soil health and provide a source of winter grazing for a couple of neighbors with beef cows. He estimates his neighbors saved about 300 bales of hay last year by grazing their cows, a total of about 250, on his fields last winter. And he received the added benefit of naturally placed fertilizer.
“Circular systems are beneficial all the way around,” Gaesser says.
Opportunities for Iowa farmers
As a leader in corn, soybean, pork and egg production, Iowa has endless possibilities for innovative collaborations. And opportunities extend beyond traditional commodities.
“This is about the future of Iowa agriculture,” Blair says. “And not every farmer in Iowa has to be a large-scale row-crop farmer.”
Promoting circular economies could create new opportunities for farmers to grow more diverse crops, including fruits and vegetables; add more grazing animals to the land; and get involved in the renewable energy space.
Beginning farmers, especially, need to find creative ways of getting into agriculture.
“There is a lot of interest in how we encourage the next generation in agriculture,” says Sievers, noting it would cost in the tens of millions of dollars for a young person to buy 1,000 acres and start row-cropping. “Our next generation isn’t going to be able to do that, but maybe there are other opportunities. We’ve got to look at agriculture a bit differently.”
About the forum
Gaesser expects a mix of people to attend the Iowa Smart Agriculture: Circles of Life Forum, including both young and experienced farmers as well as representatives from banks, farm management companies, governmental agencies, commodity groups, Iowa State University, Iowa FFA, and the Iowa Department of Economic Development. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the governor will also be involved.
The first day of the forum will include a field day, with attendees visiting a food pantry in Des Moines to learn about food insecurity in the state before traveling to Ames and Nevada to visit an innovative farm and a biorefinery. The evening will end with a review of research trials and dinner at Couser Cattle Company.
The second day will feature speakers on circular systems, including a partner in agriculture reactor panel and breakout conversations to identify priority building blocks for the future of Iowa agriculture.
IASA hopes this forum will be the first of many that bring together Iowa farmers and agricultural partners to continue the discussion on circular systems and innovative ways forward for the state’s No. 1 industry. IASA is working with Iowa State Extension on additional educational programs for later in the summer and in 2024.
“It’s not that we have all the answers, but we think between everyone—in their individual farms, fields and lives—we can do an even better job of managing the resources we’ve been blessed with,” Gaesser says. “That is the goal for me and our team.”