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There is only so much farmland in the United States. So when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last spring prompted worries that people would go hungry as wheat remained stuck in blockaded ports, there was little U.S. farmers could do to meet the new demand.
But that may be changing.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted new policies to encourage American farmers to begin growing two crops on one piece of land — one after the other — a practice known as double-cropping.
By changing insurance rules to lessen the risk of growing two crops, the USDA hopes to significantly increase the amount of wheat that U.S. farmers could grow every year, lessening the reliance on big wheat producers such as Ukraine and Russia and eliminating bottlenecks.
The idea is an intriguing development from Ukraine war that hasn't received widespread attention.
As fall approaches, it's unclear how many farmers actually will try the new system, but some who already grow two crops say it’s something farmers should consider.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Illinois farmer Jeff O’Connor, who has double-cropped for years and hosted President Joe Biden at an event in May to promote efforts to increase food production.
“How successful it will be, I don’t know.”
Even if the effort is only moderately successful, agriculture groups are hoping for new ways of meeting a growing global demand for food while generating more profit for farmers amid high fertilizer and fuel costs.
As Andrew Larson with the Illinois Soybean Association put it, “It removes some of the hurdles and provides a lot more flexibility."
In 2020, the United States exported wheat valued at $6.3 billion.
Double-cropping isn't new in parts of the South and southern Midwest, which have the key advantage of longer growing seasons.
Those warmer temperatures let farmers squeeze in a fall planting of one crop — usually winter wheat — that is dormant over the winter and then grows and can be harvested in late spring, just as farmers plant a second crop — typically soybeans.
The problem comes when cool weather delays the spring harvest of wheat, which in turn delays the planting of soybeans. And that’s where the USDA’s new effort could ease the risk of a costly planting backup.
The USDA’s Risk Management Agency would streamline crop insurance approvals for farmers planting a second crop in more than 1,500 counties where double-cropping seems viable.
The agency also would work with crop insurers and farm groups to promote a greater availability of coverage in other counties.