Cover Crops: An Idea Worth Planting

This is the first in a series of posts about cover crops. Much gratitude to Mallory Daily for her editing skills and constructive feedback, and to Rob Myers for enabling me to learn and providing endless guidance.

Land is always tied to narrative. Across cultures and geographies, different landscapes have inspired, strengthened or extinguished life. Around the Midwest, where I live, it’s easy to view the farm landscape as a robust agricultural system of inputs and outputs, ripe with the foods that nourish and sustain us. But our farmland is struggling. Among the myriad of ways we can start to heal it, one in particular sticks out to me: cover crops.

On April 23, I gave a TEDx Talk at the University of Missouri focused on engaging the general public in learning about cover crops.

Why should the average person care about cover crops? What is a cover crop, anyway? What do they do? And in the larger scheme of things, why should we familiarize ourselves with the stories of farms?

 

TEDxMULogo

The Power of A Single Idea TEDxMU, April 23, 2016

Though the talk isn’t yet available online (stay posted), I’d like to provide more information on cover crops for the curious mind. To me, they are an endlessly intriguing topic. Cover crops are a natural, adaptable and economical solution to a multitude of challenges on the farm. But they’re only used on 5% of the cropland in the United States. Right now, I’m working to figure out why that percentage is so small, and I hope you’ll join me on my journey.

This is the first of a series of posts that will serve as a companion to my TEDx talk. My goal is to provide context and resources to empower the interested individual in their learning process.

So, since you’re reading this, you’ve already got the seed of curiosity planted in your mind. Let’s water that seed and allow your cover crop knowledge to grow!


First, imagine that you’re planning a road trip.

Think of all of the places you’ll visit along your journey.

I’m willing to bet that for most of you, these destinations involve mountains, oceans, national parks or national monuments, because each of these incredible landscapes have stories of adventure and discovery attached to them. Think of the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Niagara Falls. These are iconic stops on most North American road trips.

John Muir Quote, Mountians

Yosemite National Park, photo by Aftab Uzzaman, Flickr

I bet you aren’t thinking of the farmland you’ll pass on your journey.

Though they aren’t as strikingly beautiful as mountains or oceans, farms do have an interesting story to tell. I believe that by familiarizing ourselves with the story of our land, we will find it beautiful in its own way.

So we must ask: what sorts of challenges exist for the farmers working this land? And what innovative opportunities are shaping this land, right now?

These questions and their answers are very important. They impact all of us, and not only on road trips. We all have a major investment in farmland that we often overlook: we eat food. We eat food for breakfast, for lunch and dinner. Think about that coffee you had this morning, or the granola bar on your desk. Maybe you’ll have a glass of wine after work. We depend on food for our social sanity and our physical functioning. So, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all concerned with the management of the farmland that provides us with food to eat.

Farms across the globe are facing an enormous threat. It’s called erosion. In the 1930s, severe periods of drought rendered U.S. farmland weak and susceptible to wind erosion. This occurred on such a massive scale that wind rolling across the landscape churned up clouds of dust the size of small towns, choking the air with soil. This was the Dust Bowl. It inspired Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous quote: “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” This rings true across the history of the world, so much so that books have been written documenting the fall of civilizations due to poor soil stewardship (see Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations).

Erosion is so relevant an issue that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has named sediment (displaced soil and debris from erosive events) the most common pollutant in our waterways.

I’ll repeat that: sediment, including soil, pollutes our water when it erodes. Soil isn’t inherently harmful; it isn’t a pollutant when it nourishes and strengthens the land. But we’ve developed our systems in a way that allows this life-giving resource to become a costly pollutant.

So, we’re losing the soil we need to grow the food that we eat. And with that displaced soil comes displaced nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which will travel into our streams, rivers and oceans. It will concentrate in these aquatic systems, forming dead zones where fish and other aquatic life can no longer live.

Unfortunately, highly erosive events will occur more frequently in the face of a changing climate. Ray Gaesser, a farmer in Southeastern Iowa, recently told Tamar Haspel from the Washington Post:

“We’ve had four inches of rain in an hour… Those are 500-year rains, and now we have them every year.”

When 500-year rain events become annual rain events, people start to notice, especially people who rely on the land for their income. And, climate change is scary. It’s hard to understand how it can directly impact each one of us. Some people don’t really want to talk about it or even acknowledge that it’s occurring. It isn’t a comfortable reality.

But I’m an optimist. And though the climate is changing, we also have incredible opportunities to develop a toolkit to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

One of these opportunities is cover crops.

 

crimsonclover OSU

Crimson Clover blooming in Oregon, photo by Nicole Anderson, OSU

 

A cover crop is a crop that’s planted during a time of the year when we wouldn’t normally plant anything, with the purpose of improving and protecting the soil. They can be planted in the summer, in the winter, whenever! They are the guardians of our precious soil, working to protect the billions of living, breathing organisms that live in and make up our soil.

But using cover crops in this way isn’t a new idea. Cover crops are ancient, older than the United States of America, older than Christianity, older than Cleopatra…

The idea of using cover crops can be traced back at least 3,000 years, when they were discussed in ancient Chinese manuscripts. The Ancient Greeks and Romans also wrote about cover crops. And in the U.S., cover crops have a presidential past. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson exchanged letters about which cover crops they were using in their own fields.

JeffersonMemorial

Flickr, Jefferson Memorial, m01229, Creative Commons

Cover crops are a big deal. I mean, they’ve been seeded across time and space by different civilizations. But, if you recall that statistic from earlier, only about 5% of the cropland in the United States is cover cropped. That’s a REALLY low number.

In the 1920’s, two German men named Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, invented a process to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into a chemical form that humans could easily manipulate. In nature, that’s called nitrogen fixing. Many plants and microorganisms do it. Haber and Bosch originally intended to market this technology to farmers, since Nitrogen, or “N”, is a critical nutrient for plant growth. But not long after this process was invented, World War II dominated the globe, and countries like the U.S. were looking to quickly manufacture more explosive weapons. As it turns out, Nitrogen is also an important ingredient in making those explosives. So the U.S. built several of these N-fixing industrial facilities to make weapons. But, as history tells us, WWII ended, and we were left with these empty N-fixing facilities, so we retrofitted this technology to produce cheap N fertilizers for U.S. farmland.

This is now a common practice. On many farms throughout the country, industrially produced N fertilizers are used to promote plant growth. And, yes, fertilizers are effective at meeting this goal. But they don’t tackle other issues on the farm, issues associated with erosion and water availability. So, this is where cover crops come in. Like superheroes to save the day, cover crops can offer our farms a whole host of benefits. They are so useful in fact, that the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program likens them to a Swiss army knife in their utility.

Swiss Army Knife SARE

I introduce some of these benefits in my TEDx Talk, and we’ll dive even deeper into them in the posts that follow this one. But hopefully you’re beginning to understand the sort of impacts cover crops can have on the land, and how this is relevant to you. We are all stakeholders in the realm of food and agriculture. It’s just a matter of understanding how we connect.

Though we aren’t all farmers, we are all consumers of farm products. As citizens in a global economy, we are responsible for stewarding the resources we have so that future generations can continue to thrive, grow and pay it forward. Land management is a conversation we are all participating in, whether consciously or not.

So let’s consciously learn the story of our land, so that we can better understand the challenges that we all face in managing it, and be empowered to support the amazing opportunities, like cover crops, that exist to meet those challenges.


Next week – how do cover crops impact the environment? What sorts of “ecosystem services” do they provide?

And later – how do cover crops impact the economics of operating a farm? What do they do to crop yields? Who is using cover crops, and how are businesses evolving around them? What does the cover crop and conservation agriculture landscape look like moving forward?

Until then, go outside!

 

 

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