Sunday, August 21, 2011

Agronomists on Polycultures for Biomass

I'm glad to present this paper which was sent to me by James Giese of the American Society of Agronomy, since, as the paper states, the topic of polycultures in farming has been making the scientific literature lately. Any discussion of the monoculture/polyculture debate is encouraging.

This particular paper contains interesting nuggets of information from various studies as well as the agronomists perspective, although I was disappointed that its focus was upon the economics of biomass production for fuel since I am not optimistic about biomass as fuel due to insurmountable logistics problems even if the technology were there, which it's not.
Polycultures in modern farming are studying the enhancement of production through biodiversity's beneficial relationships between plants, discouragement of pests, retention of water, and enrichment and preservation of soils.

I'd also like to see a discussion of biodiversity restoration of
our original prairie ecosystems through mandated fence-row, waterway, and wildlife corridors throughout the entire farming region of the Midwest, with some added agroforestry. This could give bees and butterflies the habitat which they require, and other symbiotic wildlife eating bugeaters, too. It would help attract young people back to the farming regions which have become environmental wastelands.

Policymakers are throwing money at cellulosic ethanol which no doubt prompted this paper's focus, and farming comes down to policy, which in turn, creates or dictates economic feasibility. In that department, we have a long way to go. ---KM

The following is an excerpt from "Do Polycultures Have a Role in Modern Agriculture?"
....the concept of “diversifying” the farm landscape with perennial species and polycultures has taken root in the scientific literature, fueled by the push toward cellulosic bioenergy crops, such as switchgrass, miscanthus, and prairie plant mixes.

Proponents argue that while today’s simplified agricultural systems excel at producing corn, cotton, and other vital commodities in massive amounts, they come at the price of degraded water quality, vanishing wildlife habitat, and increased pesticide use. Sowing plant diversity back into farmlands, they say, could reduce these costs by providing ecological benefits, such as natural pest control, carbon storage, and nutrient retention. Others see diversification as crucial to agriculture’s future resilience. continue reading...[pdf]


  1. I was just at one of our properties this morning and marveled at the diversity on the pasture. Red clover and chicory were both in flower (and were soon going to be eaten as the sheep were moving) and the pollinators were buzzing around.

    What has been fascinating to watch is how the dominant species in the sward has changed during the season. Early on crimsom clover dominated, then berseem, and now red. The cool season grasses are not as happy with the heat of summer, but the plantain and chicory and coming on to compensate.

    Altogether then, the species richness has created a more even distribution of growth during the year, which is great for grazing.

    This is all understood by ecological theory and research on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function (you can even find an acronym for this line of theory and research: BEF).

    I would propose that we, as a society, drop most of the cellusoic biofuels craze and shift to getting polycultures of pasture back to be used for grazing. Phase out the feedlot system and reintegrate ruminants on farm landscapes. Put in the buffer strips in riparian zones, let those be grazed, and annual crop only the high and well drained ground.

  2. Jason,
    Did you ever consider running for the Ag Secretary position? Ha. If I could vote for you, I would.

  3. Dear K,

    I apologize for the delay in commenting on this, out of the office a bit attending farm shows, field days. Also, nice because the weather here in Wisconsin has been just about perfect the past few weeks.

    First, thank you for pointing out this article and giving us a chance to discuss it.

    I would comment that although the article does discuss crops for biofuels, to me at least, the overall point of the article was about diversification of the ag landscape. The science behind polycultures deserves study.

    As the last two paragraphs state:

    “…the larger point is that we need some way to move forward. Otherwise, it will remain tough to bridge the divide between the benefits of diversity that ecologists see and the need for profitable production that agronomists know—even when both sides are willing to cross it.”

    “Here at Minnesota, at Iowa State, at Wisconsin, we’re studying these native plants [as crops] because we are aware of the importance of ecosystem services,” Sheaffer says.

    Again, I appreciate the post and the chance to interact with open discussion! Your blog is one of my reference points.


    James Giese
    Director of Science Communications
    American Society of Agronomy
    Crop Science Society of America
    Soil Science Society of America
    5585 Guilford Road
    Madison, WI 53711
    Office: 608-268-3976
    Fax: 608-273-2021
    E-Mail: * *