When farmers get together to talk, there’s sure to be conversations about the weather, the markets, and how the crops are doing. Lately, here in Iowa, our conversations keep coming back to circles. No, we’re not talking in circles; we’re noticing the circles of life inherent to our farms—and critical for our future.

Circular thinking is a mindset most farmers are born with but must be cultivated. Simply put, it’s using and reusing resources on and off the farm to create value for the farm, the farmer, and society. It’s turning waste (like livestock manure) into value (like fertilizer) as a foundational way to cut costs, enhance efficiencies, and do more good on the land, from delivering food to ecosystem services. It’s realizing everything and everyone is connected and making the most of those connections.

We’re at a time in history when farmers are being called upon to do more than ever. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates we’ll need to produce 60% more food to feed 9.3 billion people by 2050, and we’re working with extreme weather events, fluctuating markets, and supply chain issues.

In Iowa, we looked at these challenges and decided to come together to learn from one another and see how we can be part of this changing landscape. We formed Iowa Smart Agriculture, a self-directed work group made up of farmers and agriculture partners supported by Solutions from the Land and Iowa State University

Our Vision for Iowa Agriculture

IASA’s vision is to manage Iowa’s working landscapes to safely and sustainably provide an abundance of food, feed, fiber, and energy, while concurrently protecting and building health in our soil; filtering and storing water; sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and ensuring economically compelling opportunities for our livestock producers, farmers, their families and communities.

Looking at circular systems helps us tell the story of how we are achieving positive outcomes while showing us our next opportunities for improvement.

As we evaluate the circles of life on our farms, we start asking questions that lead to more solutions and more questions. It’s a continual, again we’ll say, “circular,” evolution of progress in our operations. And that—the capacity to continually question what we do and why—is the key to building resilience.

Circles of Life on the Farm

As examples, here are snapshots of our circular stories:

  • Ray Gaesser grows corn that goes to a nearby ethanol plant. The ethanol plant creates renewable energy and distiller’s grains, which feed his neighbors’ livestock. The Gaessers apply their neighbors’ livestock manure on their fields as fertilizer to grow more corn. They’ve expanded their circle by working with neighboring cattle producers to graze cattle on their cover crops.
  • Kellie Blair custom-finishes pigs and manages a cow herd, which gives her access to manure-fertilizer from and for her farm. In addition to corn and soybeans, the Blairs grow oats and alfalfa, which they can feed their livestock or sell at a premium, depending on markets and the weather.
  • Bryan Sievers started adding cattle to his operation to reduce fertilizer costs. He now runs a 2,400-head beef feedlot, which supplies enough manure to fertilize his 2,000 acres of crop ground and nearly 1,000 acres of his neighbor’s crop ground. He also produces biogas-generated electricity thanks to two 970,000-gallon anaerobic digesters on the farm. Manure from his beef feedlot plus food waste from local food processors feed the anaerobic digesters, furthering Sievers’ goals and helping the food processors reach their goal of zero landfill waste. He’s even expanding his digester capacity and will process silage from cover crops and produce renewable natural gas.

Our stories are continually adapting and changing, and we recognize we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we need to continue sharing our stories and seeking out and learning from others’ experiences.

New Opportunities for Farmers, Communities

During our recent forum, we watched FFA members interact with farmers and conservation leaders. We heard from innovative farmers and representatives of governmental agencies, universities, research, extension, banking, and industry.

We toured farms and the food bank in Des Moines, where we learned the food bank would like to purchase produce locally but cannot find enough supply. Perhaps this is a need some Iowa farmers could help fill, but it’s definitely an example of a potential partnership that would not have been discovered unless we were in conversation. We need to be talking to people in our communities and finding the unique opportunities to work together for everyone’s benefit. 

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We want to encourage all farmers to think of ways to make, use and reuse resources on their farms and in their communities. And we want to continue listening.

We will be hosting listening sessions throughout Iowa this year, thanks to our partnership with Iowa State University. These sessions will gather more thoughts from more farmers—their challenges, ideas, and needs—which will be used to develop roadmaps that will guide Iowa agriculture into the future.

Join the Conversation

We’d love for you to join us in this movement, whether you’re in Iowa or elsewhere. You can learn more about our vision for the future in our Circles of Life Report and hear recorded conversations from our forum by clicking the links in the program agenda. Contact us to continue the conversation. 

Ray Gaesser (gaesserfarms@gmail.com) operates Gaesser Farms in Corning, Iowa. He is a board member of Solutions from the Land and member of the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance. Bryan Sievers (bryan.sievers@gmail.com) operates Sievers Family Farms in Stockton, Iowa. Kellie Blair (kellie@blairfarmll.com) operates Blair Farm in Dayton, Iowa. All three are co-chairs of Iowa Smart Agriculture.