Whether or not a given crop will be able to grow depends heavily on the conditions of the land on which it is planted. Although some farmers know what each crop requires, how to test land for nutrients and how to maintain fertility, many small farmers do not have access to this information (Obidike, 2011).

Most of this information is readily available in the developed world. Charts such as those seen below detail the nutrition ranges for plants through various stages of their lifecycle, such as this one taken from a reference for farmers in the southern United States:
image00Figure 1, Ranges of ideal micro and macronutrient levels for wheat (Southern Cooperatives, 2000).

As seen above, there are many factors that can cause variations in soil fertility. A common but easily addressed issue is over planting. Because some plants require more of one nutrient than others do, planting the same crop in one area for extended periods of time can deplete that nutrient in the soil. This can be avoided by crop rotation; changing the crop family grown in the area periodically. Crop rotation, if done correctly, can increase yields by 15 to 20%, since it maintains the robustness of the soil and can reduce pests that have a predilection for one crop (Moss, Powell, 2007). Planting crops that have roots close to the surface takes nutrients and water from a different level than plants with deep roots, and the deeper roots can help loosen soil and divert compaction (Moss, Powell, 2007). The basic model for optimal rotation is an alternation of cash crops and cover crops in each field (Johnson, Mohler, 2009). The purpose of cover crops is to re-fertilize the soil–they provide a root system that keeps the topsoil in place, and cover to keep the ground moist (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education). Cover crops are often a species of legume since commensal bacteria in legumes’ root system provide nitrogen, which is key to soil fertility (Klooserman, 2012). However, cover crops such as clover rarely bring income to farmers (Johnson, Mohler, 2009), so other methods are necessary for maintaining soil health.

One such method is co-cropping or intercropping, wherein the cover crops are planted alongside the cash crops. In Israel, Pedro Berliner (Klooserman, 2012) has seen farmers increase their yields by planting legumes in rows between other crops Intercropping is beneficial and may help bring in more revenue for farmers because it allows them to grow cash crops for a longer period of time without rotation.

Both methods, rotation and intercropping, require farmers to decrease the amount of land that is producing the maximum profit crop, and many farmers cannot afford that. Because it is unrealistic to expect education alone to change the monocropping culture, we suggest government support for those who practice crop rotation or intercropping while cutting support for those who do not.

As an example, the US government currently provides subsidies to farmers to supplement their incomes. Of the 35,259 million USD used to incentivize farming in 2006, only 2,021 million USD went to conservation projects (USDA, 2006). This program pays farmers to plant cover crops in their land for several years until the soil’s robustness is improved (FSA). This is a start in the right direction, but only addresses the issue of soil depletion after the damage has been done. The initiative could be improved by lowering grants to those who do not practice soil conservation methods. The benefit of monocropping is a large, immediate yield of the cash crop, and reducing subsidies to those who monocrop would reduce the reward of that action. While the current application for government aid focuses on income (GAO, 2008), a query should be added on farming methods so those who practice methods that preserve soil quality can be rewarded.

The other action that is possible for the US government to take at the present is to cut surplus purchasing for those who monocrop. When the market demand for an agricultural product falls far short of the amount produced, the United States Department of Agriculture buys surplus from farmers and then gives it to charities to stabilize the market (USDA, n.d). In 2009 this included 644 million USD worth of fruits and vegetables, and 96 million USD for grain (Physicians Committee). We suggest a screening process that favors those who intercrop. When farmers use a monocrop system, they produce a large amount of one product. By using the budget to buy surplus first from those who rotate harvests, there is less benefit to the monocrop product should the market falter. This tactic will not work in times when the market is high for the monocrop product, but it provides security for those who choose to farm in a sustainable way.

Knowledge of soil qualities and other environmental factors that influence yield can help farmers make better decisions about what to plant. This information exists, but must be made more accessible to small farmers in developing countries, especially through mobile platforms and farmers cooperatives . Furthermore, the use of this information by farmers should be incentivized by governments through bias in pre-existing financial aid. Starting immediately, the application for subsidies should include a section on practices. In the next fiscal year onwards, the budget for surplus purchasing should prioritize buying from those who intercrop or rotate their crops, and only then move on to buying from monocrop systems.

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Works Cited

Farm Service Agency (FSA), (n.d.) Conservation Reserve Program. Retrieved 23 Nov. 2015 from <http://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/index>

Government Accountability Office (GAO), (2008), USDA Needs to Strengthen Controls to Prevent Payments to Individuals Who Exceed Income Eligibility Limits. Retrieved 23 Nov. 2015 from <http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-09-67>

Johnson, Ellen Sue; Mohler, Charles. (2009) Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: a Planning Manual. Retrieved Nov. 20 from <https://www.organicconsumers.org/sites/default/files/crop_rotation_on_organic_farms_planning_manuel.pdf>

Kalra, Yash P. (1998). Handbook of Reference Methods for Plant Analysis. Retrieved Nov. 10 from <http://www.e-reading.club/bookreader.php/136339/Kalra_-_Handbook_of_Reference_Methods_for_Plant_Analysis.pdf >

Kloosterman, Karin. (July 15, 2012) 10 Top Ways Israel Fights Desertification, Retrieved Nov. 10 from <http://www.israel21c.org/top-10-ways-israel-fights-desertification/>

Moss, Michael; Powell, Maud; Powell, Tom. (2007) Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Farm Internship Curriculum and Handbook “Crop Rotation,” Retrieved Nov. 20 from <https://attra.ncat.org/intern_handbook/crop_rotation.html>

Penn State Extension (n.d.), Crop Rotations and Conservation Tillage. Retrieved 23, Nov. 2015 from <http://extension.psu.edu/plants/crops/soil-management/conservation-tillage/crop-rotations-and-conservation-tillage>

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (13 Apr. 2011) Agriculture and Health Policies in Conflict: How Subsidies Tax Our Health: Government Support for Unhealthful Foods. Retrieved 01 Nov. 2015 from <http://www.pcrm.org/health/reports/agriculture-and-health-policies-unhealthful-foods>.

Southern Cooperatives Series Bulletin (July 2000) Reference Sufficiency Ranges for Plant Analysis in the Southern Region of the United States. Retrieved 10 Nov. 2015 from <http://www.clemson.edu/sera6/scsb394notoc.pdf >

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (n.d.), Benefits of Cover Crops. Retrieved 23 Nov. 2015from <http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition/Text-Version/Benefits-of-Cover-Crops>

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2006) Budget Summary and Annual Performance Plan. Retreived 23 Nov. 2015 from <http://www.obpa.usda.gov/budsum/FY06budsum.pdf>

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (n.d.) Selling Food to the USDA. Retrieved 23 Nov. 2015 from <http://www.ams.usda.gov/selling-food>