How Crop Rotation Supports Sustainable Farming

What is crop rotation?

Crop rotation is crucial for farming in the Skagit Valley because of the diversity of high-value crops that are grown here; over 90 different crops are grown here each year. These high-value crops cannot be grown year after year on the same piece of land because they would deplete the nutrients in the soil and expose the crop to diseases and pests. Two important crops grown in the Valley are potatoes and tulips. Potatoes are a crop that has become increasingly important in the Valley, however, in order to create a viable crop year after year, farmers practice a 4-5 year rotation of the crop. Another crop that requires large amounts of nutrients from the soil is tulips. Skagit County produces more tulip and daffodil bulbs than any other county in the United States, and bulb growers depend on rotation to ensure healthy plants and successful harvests. Crop rotation helps preserve soil health and minimizes the risk of diseases and pests. Lastly, one of the most important crops in terms of value are seed crops; the top three in acreage and value are spinach, cabbage, and beet seeds. Skagit and Snohomish counties produced nearly 75% of the U.S. supply of spinach and cabbage seed and nearly 95% of the U.S. table beet seed (WSU Skagit). Because these seeds are so valuable and production is highly technical, farmers use rotation schedules as lengthy as 10 years, meaning they plant these crops only once every 10 years on the same piece of land. These practices are time intensive, require years of planning, and also show the dedication of Skagit farmers to land stewardship.


Soil matters

Crop rotation is the practice of alternating the type of plant grown on a plot of land; the opposite of crop rotation is a monoculture. If we take a look at the effects monoculture has on agriculture, we will better understand why the benefits of crop rotation are important. Monoculture is the practice of growing single crops intensively on a very large scale, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice; these crops primarily go to feeding livestock. Growing crops this way is an input and resource intensive practice because these crops are often grown year after year on the same land which quickly depletes the nutrients in the soil. Furthermore, monoculture leaves fields bare for most of the year; the resultant erosion further strips the soil of its nutrients. Farmers have to rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farm the land year after year. All of these factors point to an unsustainable farming system with far-reaching consequences and environmental impacts.

What’s stopping these farmers from practicing crop rotation? One reason is because of land renting, where farmers don’t actually own the land they farm. This is challenging because it makes long term planning difficult and unpredictable. Another reason is that it can be a large upfront investment to switch to a crop rotation system. Different practices and crops require different equipment and inputs, meaning a potentially large investment to make the change. Additionally, there may not be local markets for these farmers to sell these rotational crops into meaning there is no high-value alternative to the commodity market. Lastly, farmers need more information in order to make a change, and they also need proven best practices to reduce the severity of the potential risks.

Now let's take a look at some of the benefits that come from practicing crop rotation. The goal of crop rotation is to create a long-term farming plan that builds a foundation upon which all other crops may thrive. Farmers harness the power of their crops in order to set up the next crop for success. When farmers use other crops as their primary source for maintaining soil nutrition, they use fewer fertilizers and inputs. The benefits of crop rotations are diverse and plentiful.

  • Increase yields by improving soil health

  • Decrease the risk and severity of pest outbreaks

  • Suppress disease and break disease cycles

  • Increase the amount of organic material in the soil

  • Improve crop diversity

  • Increase resilience to weather

  • Helps retain moisture in the soil when it rains and when it doesn’t rain

  • Crops attract pollinators

Different cover crops also have different roles to play during their rotation

  • Some cover crops add nitrogen to the soil and some help remove excess nitrogen

  • Some crops are better for reducing erosion, for example winter crops can be crucial to maintaining the soil during harsh weather

  • Spring crops help farmers with water management. Barley does two things - it absorbs water after a rainy spring and helps maintain soil moisture into the summer, which means fewer water inputs for farmers

  • Certain cover crops are also better at helping farmers manage and control weeds

Non-legumes (Barley and Wheat) also a specific and specialized role in crop rotation.

  • Most useful for scavenging nutrients from the soil

  • Providing erosion control

  • Suppressing weeds

  • After harvest, these crops leave a great deal of residual organic material which makes its way back into the soil

The soil that grows our food is a sensitive and complex ecosystem that has to be managed and maintained. Farmers have choices in their practices and we are proud to participate and support a system that believes in creating a sustainable long term farming culture. Barely doesn't just make delicious beer, it also directly benefits the soil that makes beer possible


How Skagit Valley Malting is making a difference

Barley clearly plays an important role in farming the Skagit Valley but it can come at a cost to farmers. Before our Malthouse was built, the only primary market for Skagit barley was feed. Feed prices fluctuate year to year and even state to state. This meant that in some years a farmer’s cost of production exceeded the value of their barley on the commodity feed market. Malting adds value to barley, and the majority of US barley today goes towards malting, Since the Skagit Valley isn't known as a malting barley producing region, no malting market existed here for farmers growing barley. Skagit Valley Malting is currently building a market for Skagit barley through exceptional malting and not only gives farmers a place to sell their barley but also adds value to the grain. SVM doesn't buy barley at commodity prices; we contract directly with farmers and buy grain at a per-ton price that is two to three times more than what the commodity market offers. We have found that contracting directly with the farmers creates higher quality barley and makes for a flexible system that lets us test new varieties of barley and explore new farming practices related to terroir. This value-add is only possible through craft malting and through craft beer/distilling, because they are premium products that demand higher quality ingredients.

Additional reading and sources:
WSU Skagit Extension