Farming Techniques: Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a traditional agricultural technique that involves planting different types of crops on the same piece of land in sequenced seasons.[1] Planting two different kinds of vegetables together is called intercropping, or component cropping. The goal of crop rotation and component crops is obtaining the highest yields while keeping the fertility of the soil intact.[2]

In the U.S., most farmers use nitrogen-fixing plants, like soybeans, and nitrogen-hungry plants like corn. This balance aids in supplementing the soil with the necessary levels of nutrients needed to yield high harvests and healthy, disease-free crops continuously.[3] Crop rotation helps reduce soil erosion and boosts nutrient levels in the soil by increasing the biomass from the root structures of different plants. This, in turn, leads to more bountiful harvests.

There are several characteristics of proper crop rotation. Farmers must be able to adapt this method to the existing soil, climate, and economic factors of the region. The land must be utilized adequately, meaning that the current season’s component crops supplement soil fertility and profit the farmer at the end of the year. Similarly, soil improving crops such as legumes should be planted periodically to maintain and add to the soil’s organic matter content. Farmers should allocate more farmland to the area’s most profitable crops. Lastly, a sign of proper crop rotation is low levels of pests, diseases, and weeds.[4]

Crop rotation has consistently been implemented around the world as early as 6000 B.C. when Middle Eastern farmers grew legumes and cereal crops.[5] The idea spread, and today, it is a common practice that farmers use. In fact, for farmers in the U.S. to earn organic certification, they must use crop rotation. Corn, wheat, cotton, and other cereal plants are common component crops for U.S. farmers.

Even in drier, more arid climates, crop rotation has proven to benefit the land and consistently produce high yields. In Saudi Arabia, cereal plants and alfalfa crops are rotated and managed with center pivot irrigation systems. The combination of these two plants and irrigation showed improved yields and improved soil quality.[6]

West and North Africa both saw enhanced water use efficiency in farmland that implemented crop rotation and component cropping. In a diversified cropping system, soil that remains fertile and nutrient rich has better water retention. Egyptian farmers saw similar results as well as a decline in pests and other crop-damaging weeds thanks to healthier soil.[7]

Crop rotation has proved itself to be a reliable form of agriculture that, if done correctly, can be an environmentally and economically viable farming technique. Its current implementation on farms all over the world proves that even after thousands of years, it is still is one of the best ways to reap bountiful yields season after season.

One of the most significant environmental benefits of crop rotation, other than preventing soil erosion and maintaining soil fertility while preventing pests, is the reduced need for fertilizers. Because crop rotation keeps the ground healthy, the nutrients plants need to grow are already present. Therefore, farmers do not need to supplement with herbicides and chemicals that can run off into waterways and lead to more pollution.[8]

Despite all the good things about crop rotation, there are several drawbacks. There is a strong risk factor for farms that use this method. Farmers must choose crops based on fixed conditions like soil type, topography, climate, and irrigation. Not only that, but they must also rely on more inconsistent factors such as weather, market, and labor supply that could change from year to year. This makes it challenging to plan crops in the coming years.[9]

Secondly, if crop rotation is not implemented correctly, it can harm the soil and upset the nutrient composition or create a buildup of pathogens that may prove fatal for essential crops. Poor crop rotation may go unnoticed for years, as the effects aren’t always apparent and can take numerous seasons to fix. Even experienced farmers may not notice the consequences until it is too late.[10]

Lastly, crop rotation only works if different crops are planted every season. Because of this, farmers are unable to specialize in one type of vegetable. Also, the farmer can’t have large-scale harvests of one plant over time because of the soil damage it will cost.[11]

There are a few disadvantages to crop rotation when compared to the environmental benefits. Risk has always been a factor in farming and is nothing new for the industry. It is much better to have a sustainable method of farming to ensure the land can be used consistently for many years, if not generations. Of all the farming techniques, crop rotation has proved to be one of the most balanced in providing both environmental and economic benefits.