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Monmouth College farming panel: Working together a key for future success

Barry McNamara
02/10/2017
Speakers from the panel discussion "Shaping the Future of Farming in Western Illinois" speak Thursday night. From left to right: Local farmer and panel moderator Ron Moore, Monsanto’s Troy Coziahr, dairy farmer/soil scientist Francis Thicke, extension educator Andrew Larson, and Western Illinois University professor Joel Gruver.
Working together will be key toward ensuring that the future of farming in western Illinois is the equivalent of a bumper crop.

That was one of the opinions shared by five authorities on agriculture at a panel discussion hosted Thursday evening by Monmouth College and its Global Food Security Triad.

During his introductory remarks, Assistant Professor of Biology Eric Engstrom said the College’s two innovative Triads “address problems we expect to become increasingly urgent as we move into the 21st century. ... The solution to food security is very urgent, and it will take the collective citizenry to solve.” Monmouth’s other Triad is Global Public Health.

Engstrom spoke in terms of an interdisciplinary approach. But panelist Andrew Larson, an extension educator, said the farming community itself also needs to come together.

“We have a lot of flat, fertile ground, and we do industrial commodity farming REALLY well,” he said, noting the growth of small-acreage food-production operations. “Those two different communities get at each other, and it blows my mind. Both groups need to recognize that they’ll continue to exist. It’s not you or me, it’s both of us.”

Larson was joined on the panel by Troy Coziahr of the Monsanto Learning Center, Western Illinois University professor Joel Gruver and dairy farmer/soil scientist Francis Thicke. The discussion was moderated by local farmer Ron Moore, whose family has farmed in the area for more than 100 years.

Larson also expressed concern for a third group – the mid-level farms with more than 100 acres but less than 1,000.

Another area of concern raised throughout the discussion was Thicke’s point that the technology for electric cars will continue to improve and, in less than 10 years, could result in a dramatic cut in demand for corn-based ethanol.

“I see the potential for a lot of catastrophes here,” he said. “I see problems in the industry model,” including overproduction.

Thicke is a proponent of “farming in ways that will enhance our materials.”

At his dairy farm, the land is divided into 60 small pastures, so his cows always graze on fresh grass.

“We try to structure our farm to match the ecology of nature. ... My definition of sustainability is to improve, or at least maintain, our resource space,” he said.

Thicke continued: “Every gallon of ethanol we produce, we lose two gallons of soil. There was a study done by Iowa State University, and they came up with a 50-year plan to fix that and to improve the water quality. We’re deficit-spending our base, and (waiting) 50 years to fix it isn’t good enough.”

Coziahr said he is optimistic about the future of farming, pointing to past improvements as one reason.

As a college student in the early 1990s, one of his professors shared discouraging soil erosion research involving the Illinois River watershed. But the research was from 1970, and when the updated information was obtained, Coziahr learned that the erosion had been cut in half. In the years since, it’s been cut 85 percent from the 1970 figure.

“I think of all the progress we’ve made, and the fact that we’re on the cusp of the data-science revolution,” Coziahr said. “It’s an incredibly exciting time in agriculture.”

Coziahr said two familiar commodities will likely remain king crops in western Illinois.

“Historically, the most profitable use of the land was to produce corn and soybeans,” he said. “At the end of the day, farmers have to pay the bills. Ultimately, the markets are going to drive this. What it’s all about is the ability to adapt – to produce as efficiently as possible a product that the consumer wants and needs.”

Panelists also shared that in the last 30 years, 2 billion people in the world have risen out of the poverty level. When that happens, diets change.

“The preponderance of agricultural production does not go into human beings,” said Larson. “We need to change the rhetoric from ‘feed the world’ to ‘food the world.’”

Thicke was less optimistic about the Midwest’s role in such an endeavor, citing economic factors such as transportation costs and the ability of the people who need food to pay for it.

Rather, he said, improvements to the “peasant food network,” which currently feeds a high percentage of the world, should be a focus.

“With improved approaches to farming, they could double their yields,” he said. “That’s really exciting, and it would make a big difference.”