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An ISU professor says Midwest agriculture can be more than corn and soybeans

Corn fields are a common sight in the Midwest.
Illinois State University’s Aslihan Spaulding is part of a national team awarded a $10 million USDA grant to promote alternative systems for agriculture.

Midwestern agriculture is synonymous with two crops in particular: corn and soybeans. But a professor from Illinois State University thinks the region could do with a bit more diversity.

Ashlihan Spaulding is a professor of agribusiness and food industry management. Along with a national team, she was recently awarded a $10 million USDA grant to promote alternative systems in agriculture. Spaulding said she hopes her work on the project can help bring more resilience to local food systems through diversification.

“We’re still obviously going to grow corn and soybeans,” Spaulding said.

But the region’s reliance on the crops leaves it susceptible to “shocks to the system” like bad weather or falling demand. Those shocks can affect the entire food supply chain, from farmers to consumers.

“So, what else can we add to the rotation to help, and then sustain those shocks, or absorb those shocks, a little bit better,” she said.

Spaulding compares regional agriculture to a financial portfolio: the more diversified your holdings, the less likely you are to suffer major losses.

“You’re not putting all your eggs in one basket,” she said.

As it did for so many things, the pandemic revealed weaknesses in the food supply chain that diversification could help address. Spaulding said agricultural systems have been affected by the labor shortages and logistical challenges facing many industries right now. Those problems have been compounded by extreme drought, hurricanes, and rainfall events in different parts of the country.

“Everything is impacting agriculture,” Spaulding said.

It’s too early to say if the pandemic will give rise to widespread, lasting change to existing systems. Spaulding said that’s something she hopes to explore through her grant research.

“What are the challenges, what are the weaknesses, what are the opportunities,” she said. “How can we get the whole system ready so we can meet the consumer needs while we’re also meeting the farmers’ needs as well.”

Spaulding will be working with researchers from Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana for the project entitled #DiverseCornBelt: Resilient Intensification through Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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