Diverse Corn Belt Group Picture

Diverse Corn Belt Project Maps a Road to a More Prosperous Future

Few people would accuse Dr. Linda Stalker Prokopy of Purdue University of thinking small. As project director of the Diverse Corn Belt (DCB) project, the professor of natural resources social sciences is combining her lab’s research on motivation and persuasion with the work of more than 30 other investigators who bring their expertise in agronomy, entomology, soil science, economics, computer modeling, marketing, Extension, education and policy. Their goal for the five-year, USDA NIFA-funded project: nothing less than creating concrete, viable, evidence-based frameworks that can guide America’s Corn Belt toward a more diverse, resilient, prosperous future.

An earthworm found while soil sampling
An earthworm found while soil sampling

“American farmers in the Midwest have become extremely efficient at producing vast amounts of corn and soybeans, and many have built profitable businesses around the corn-soybean rotation,” Prokopy says. “But for others, the corn-soybean rotation has led to decreased economic returns, declining rural communities and degraded environmental conditions. Climate variability, uncertain policies and shifts in what consumers demand from their food suppliers is straining the system further.

“Diverse systems—biological, economic or social systems—tend to be more resilient, robust and successful,” she adds. “It makes intuitive sense that a Midwest that is more biologically, economically and socially diverse will be more resilient and successful. But the corn-soybean and confinement livestock system has been baked into the Corn Belt for generations, which has stacked the deck against most other crops. In order to find ways to increase diversity and resilience, we need to quantify the agronomic and economic benefits of diversification. We need to explore the factors that keep farmers from diversifying, whether they’re rooted in economics, policy, geography or psychology. And we have to map a vision that will facilitate diversification at the farm, market and landscape levels.”

Diversity marks the Diverse Corn Belt team’s methodology. In-field research on soil health, pest and beneficial insects, water quality and crop yields will be coupled with the results of surveys of farmers and stakeholders along the food value chain, economic and environmental modeling, and policy analysis. Focus groups of farmers and multi-year dialogues among members of Reimagining Agricultural Diversity (RAD) Teams in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa will provide insights into attitudes about diversification and real-world insights into the challenges and opportunities around it. Finally, educational modules, Extension outreach and publicity will share results with audiences ranging from high schoolers and college students to farmers, policy makers and more.

Students standing in a group with soil samplers in a pasture field.
Post-doc and students from the Diverse Corn Belt project sampling soils in Indiana

Information is starting to flow in—and out. By August 2023, the end of the project’s second year, the DCB team had conducted 31 focus groups, surveyed farmers and consumer packaged goods executives, and made dozens of presentations to farmers, students, and other stakeholders. Outreach efforts have logged more than 5.5 million impressions.

“It’s exciting to work with such an enthusiastic and skilled team to dig deep into what diversity means today, what it could look like in the future, and how the Corn Belt could get there,” says Prokopy. “There are so many moving parts to this—and so many great minds coming together to explore them.”

Learn more about DCB at diversecornbelt.org.

Linda Prokopy, Purdue University

Headshot of Linda Prokopy

Linda Prokopy has been at Purdue University since 2003. She currently serves as the Department Head and Professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Purdue University. Her research focuses on diversifying our agricultural landscape to be more sustainable for the environment, for farmers, and for communities. She has three children who keep her busy outside of work. In her “spare” time, she loves to read and hike in the woods.

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