Straight from the farm: Fermilab’s agriculture program

Rows of corn sprout on one of the tracts of Fermilab farmland. Photo: Joseph Piergrossi

If you were to describe Fermilab as a farm, you’d probably first think of quarks or neutrinos as the harvest. But for roughly 30 percent of the Fermilab property, the harvest really is corn and soybeans.

From the laboratory’s earliest days, the Roads & Grounds Group has selected a local farmer to grow crops on 2,100 acres. While in the past some of the land was used for raising beef cattle, today it is used for producing high-yield crops, like much of the upper Midwest farmland.

“It’s been a part of the land management here forever,” said Mike Becker, assistant site services manager for the Roads & Grounds Group. He said the onsite farming helps manage the land and keeps it from getting overgrown.

Every five years, Fermilab values the land according to the price of corn and soybeans and prospective farmers bid on all 2100 acres. Because of the high demand for these crops, that’s about all that has been planted on the property since the 1980s, Becker said. The farmer sells his harvest on the open market.

All of the onsite farming is conventional in nature – no organic planting here. But it doesn’t mean that the program isn’t green. Revenues from the lease pay for the environmental projects across the laboratory’s 6800 acres, including prairie, wetland and woodland restoration efforts.

The farmer also negotiates with the local community to establish a leaf pickup system. People living in the neighborhoods around the laboratory pay for trucks to pick up their leaf refuse. The farmer takes the leaves, composts them for a year, and then uses them to reintroduce nutrients into the soil once the corn is harvested.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Becker. “Local communities pay for a relatively short truck trip and our soil is improved.”

The farming operations across the site takes advantage of the infrastructure left behind by the farms that used to inhabit the area. Underground clay pipes, some over a hundred years old, drain the crop land into creeks and ditches. Fermilab helps maintain those pipes for the farmer so the land stays as fertile as possible.

Right now, across the many fields on the Fermilab site, corn and soybeans are starting to emerge. As summer approaches, the rows of leafy shoots peek out from the dark, tilled soil, a reminder of the agriculture program as a self-sustaining way of maintaining the Fermilab property.

“We wouldn’t be nearly as far with our green efforts and biodiversity improvements over the years without the help of this program,” Becker said.

—Joseph Piergrossi