Indiana crop expansion

Program: All Things Sustainable

Reporter: Scott Leadingham, IPBS

Airdate: 11/18/2010

When it comes to agriculture in Indiana, it's no secret that corn is the top crop. But as Scott Leadingham reports, despite what you may think, farms are expanding. And they're not just growing more corn.

Raise your hand if you've heard the marketing line: "There's More than Corn in Indiana." It's actually credited to the Indiana Beach Amusement Park in Monticello, but used widely by residents and businesses to convince out-of-staters that Indiana isn't just flat cornfields.


For agriculture, that's true kind of. Though corn is the dominant crop grown in the state, soybeans are a close second. In 2009, state farmers planted five point six million acres of corn and five point four million acres of soybeans. Nationally, Indiana ranks fourth for soybean production and fifth in corn. But that corn ranking is only for grain, which is for food production, and doesn't even count corn used for animal feed or the relatively recent category of ethanol fuel.


There are other outputs, including wheat, dairy and livestock. For example, in 2007 Indiana hog and pig production ranked fifth nationally.


But overall, drive through the state and you're likely to see one consistent crop-production theme: corn and soybeans rule the land.


Russell Merrell is a collector of antique steam-powered farm tractors. Though not a farmer himself, the 93-year old has seen plenty of crop production, having grown up harvesting yields on his grandfather's farm near Crawfordsville. He says today's crops are more corn and soybean-focused that he remembers as a kid.


"Back in my day when you drove down through the country at harvest time you'd see shocks of wheat, oats and rye out in the field that had been bound in sheaves and shocks out in the field, and you'd see a lot of wheat, oats and rye. Now you don't see any of that. You see corn and soybeans."


So, what happened? Have growing conditions changed? Are there now huge government subsidies that incentivize corn and soybeans and discourage tomatoes and apples?


Not really, says John Cain, an educator for the Purdue University Extension in Hendricks County. Cain says in the early 20th century, when 75 percent of people lived on farms, most food production happened locally, and farmers grew a variety of crops to support and feed themselves. Now, that sort dependence farming isn't necessary, as most people live in cities. Plus, he says the kinds of crops grown in Indiana are a matter of simple economics.


"To be competitive, and there again, it's that capitalistic system, you've got to have efficiencies of production and scale, and it's more efficient to raise all the vegetables out in California, where you have nice year-round weather. You can raise that lettuce 12 months out of the year and raise that good stuff. Here in Indiana, we have winter. We have killing frosts that start around the 10th of October and they don't go away May 10th.  So that limits your growing season, that makes it less profitable for us to try to compete against the Californians in raising lettuce and fruits and those kinds of things."


Though fewer people live on farms, there's not a drastic shortage of farmers. In fact, farms are doing an odd thing: They're expanding. At least in some categories.


The big ones, roughly one thousand acres or more, are getting bigger, which is another matter of economics. And there's been a marked increase in small-scale and urban farms, the kinds with flexibility to vary crops. You might call these the weekend farmers' market warriors for whom farming is a side business or hobby. But, with these increases, someone is caught in the middle.


"You have a decrease in the number of medium size farms because they're getting snarfed up by the big farms. And the older farmers who haven't gotten bigger, they sell out to their neighbor. So the medium sized farmers are getting smaller, the larger ones are continuing to gobble up more land, and they have to and need to fill that gap and then you have this group on the other end, the number of small farms that is increasing."


Small and urban farms are increasing so much, cities are starting to give free land. This year Indianapolis began reserving some abandoned property and offering it tax free to groups wanting to garden on it for a five-year trial period. The city views it as a win-win: groups get urban farming space and the city gets someone to maintain the property, which actually increases the value and tax income from surrounding properties.


So, maybe a new state marketing slogan can be "there's more than large farms producing only corn and soybeans in Indiana."

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