Could This Mobile, Solar-Powered Livestock Barn Reshape the Corn Belt?
Last August, Zack Smith welcomed a group of farmers, agricultural researchers, and investors to his mid-sized farm just south of the Iowa-Minnesota border for a field day. It was warm out, shorts weather, and around 35 people sat on straw bales listening as the young, fifth-generation farmer—who has gained a devoted audience through Twitter and YouTube and welcomes curious visitors to his farm every year—spoke about a critical turning point in his thinking.
The shift took place nearly three years ago as Smith—who was working off the farm for a fertilizer company at the time—was talking with the Minnesota-based farmer Sheldon Stevermer. “Corn was $2.75, beans were $7.25. We’re small farmers who don’t have a lot of acres. [We were asking ourselves,] ‘Is it worth staying in business?’” Smith recalls. The two were exchanging ideas and Stevermer asked a third farmer, Lance Petersen, what he thought. “He bounced it off Lance and he said, ‘What about putting a pen of sheep in between the rows?’”
The hope isn’t just to build a new type of farm equipment—it’s to help farmers build soil health, cut down on water pollution, and usher in a new approach to farming in the Corn Belt.
Stevermer has an engineering background and he and Smith decided to run with Peterson’s idea. They got to work designing a farming system that involved growing alternating rows of corn and strips of pasture that were wide enough to move a mobile barn through. The plants in those rows also get exposed to more sunlight than a standard canopy of corn or soy, resulting in higher yields per plant. They called the result—a solar-powered barn that separately housed eight sheep in the front, 10 hogs in the middle, and a 125 chickens in a trailing chicken tractor—the ClusterCluck 5,000. They coined the term “stock cropping” for the larger idea to have, as Smith puts it, “plants feeding animals, and animals feeding plants.”
Since then, Smith has dedicated 5 acres on a plot of land Smith rents to trialing the stock-cropper system. And he has worked with Illinois-based Dawn Equipment to design a second, much lighter and more nimble iteration of the barn: The ClusterCluck Nano runs on solar energy and can be moved with a phone app. Now, Smith and Dawn Equipment CEO Joe Bassett are working on a third iteration and actively pursuing outside investment.
The hope, says Smith, isn’t just to build a new type of farm equipment—it’s to help farmers build soil health, cut down on water pollution, and usher in a new approach to farming in the Corn Belt.
Iowa is famously home to more hogs—25 million—than people, and a sizable number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. As a result, massive quantities of manure get spread on the same farmland repeatedly, typically during the cold months when there are no roots in the soil to absorb it. That often leads to nutrient pollution in the waterways (and dead zones in places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico).
Stock cropping, on the other hand, involves rotating crops with pasture strips so that a smaller numbers of animals leave behind just enough nutrients on the land to help corn grow there the following season—replacing the expensive, leaky fertilizer systems used by most commodity farmers. Meanwhile, the animals themselves live in less confined spaces, eating the plants and insects in the pasture strips. Smith has calculated that if there were 1.4 million ClusterCluck Nanos operating on about 1.9 million acres of forage strips within 15 of Iowa’s 99 counties full time, they could theoretically replace that state’s CAFOs.
“What is progress in ag?” Smith asked the crowd at the field day last August. “If you go down to the Farm Progress show in Boone, [Iowa,] you’re going to see one version of progress, and that’s big, wide, fast farm equipment that’s designed to do more with less people involved,” he said. But Smith, whose somewhat flat speaking affect belies his deep knowledge of agronomy and a stubborn dedication to farming, has other ideas. He points to the fact that even though corn and soy prices have gone back up over the last year, so have the prices of the inputs most commodity farmers rely on, such as synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.
“It’s the same thing that’s happened three other times in my career. We get a pop and the machine responds, and the pop becomes not very fun anymore. But the concepts we have out here could be very useful as we move ahead into whatever is going to be next. [It’s] not going to be next year or the year after that, but the pattern always comes where [farmers] drain the tank and come back to a break-even proposition.”
Instead of this familiar boom-bust cycle, Smith hopes to see a network of farmers across Iowa, Minnesota, and beyond that can afford to stay on the land while farming at a smaller scale by cutting their input costs radically and selling higher welfare, grass-fed meat into local markets and directly to consumers. And while doing so will require more than just a grassroots effort, these farmers are hoping that their out-of-the-box ideas gain traction with investors who can help them scale up.
‘Escaping the Dead-end, No-win Ag Treadmill’
During the first Stock Cropper field day three summers ago, Smith started by pointing to the land next to his home farm and naming all the farming families that had sold or lost their land. The land hand been consolidated into a few larger farm operations, he told his audience, and as a result, his community had changed. Like in many rural areas, there were fewer schools, fewer neighbors to farm alongside, and it now requires a much longer drive to get to the grocery store or hardware store.
Even with an automated barn, he says, the stock-cropper system still requires farmers who are more hands-on than most other modern commodity farming, a fact that, if it were widely adopted, would result in a reversal of the population loss so many rural counties have seen.
“The whole idea of this system is that it will require a lot more farmers,” said Smith during a phone call last fall. “Because even though the barns are going to move themselves, somebody still needs to chore them, somebody still needs to do the daily husbandry. And you don’t have to try to farm half the state of Iowa to make a reasonable living.”
“The whole idea is that we want to increase the amount of biodiversity in the field within this system and build resiliency that way.”
Ricardo Salvador, the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (and a Civil Eats advisory board member), had Smith as a student when he taught at Iowa State University in the ‘90s. He has attended two of Smith’s field days and sees the work as potentially transformative.
“He wants to escape the dead-end, no-win treadmill [agricultural] situation where all that you can do is choose from a very narrow range of options, which always make the farmer the person who takes the ultimate risk, earns the least, and is dependent on government [subsidies] in order to make ends meet,” says Salvador. By selling the highest-value final product—the meat itself rather than just the grain to feed the animals—Salvador adds, he’s found a way to do something that has “become out of reach for farmers that decades ago bought into the idea of specialization.”
The hope, says Smith, is to create a system that’s more resilient in the face of climate change because it relies on fewer inputs.
Eventually, he says, “we could probably cut nitrogen use by 75 percent compared to a conventional corn acre. And I think we could completely eliminate the [added] phosphorus and potassium and use the animals to cycle it back into the soil.”
He is also looking at other crops that might make good animal feed, like barley and field peas, which would diversify the operation further. “The whole idea is that we want to increase the amount of biodiversity in the field within this system and build resiliency that way.”
Dawn Equipment’s Bassett got on board with stock cropping and started collaborating with Smith several years ago. Bassett had been making small-scale farm equipment targeted specifically at those cutting down on tillage and planting cover crops after he took stock of the nitrogen problems—and resulting regulations—in the Chesapeake Bay and the Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit.