This is the fourth in a series of posts about cover crops. The previous topics include an introduction to why cover crops are an idea worth planting, the many ways that cover crops are ecosystem superheroes and a look at the profitability of cover crops.
Sometimes I wonder how far the products I use have traveled before arriving in my hands. Whether it’s dish soap or flannel shirts, I’m certain that there’s more history to my favorite products than just their time with me.
Take flannel shirts, for example. The material in the shirt itself was either grown from seed on a farm or chemically manufactured in a factory. It was then most likely transported to another location, perhaps by a third party, where it was then processed and dyed. From there it might have been passed along to a clothing manufacturer to take the form of the shirt it is today, then shipped to a store or a warehouse and sold to me. And this is probably the short version of the adventures of my flannel shirt on before meeting me.
Each step in this process is a business in itself. Production, shipping, design, materials engineering, retail, customer service, management, etc. All of these pieces come together to make one whole product: a wonderfully cozy and functional shirt.
Similarly, there are many different aspects of production in the world of cover crops. In this post, let’s explore how these present business opportunities, from seed to crop.
There are four stages in the life of a cover crop relevant to this discussion: seed, planting, management ,and termination. Within “management,” we’ll group the planning process (deciding which cover crops to plant, when, where to buy, etc.). If we zoom in on these four stages, we can identify business opportunities hiding like gems within.
Opportunity: growing cover crop seed
Someone has to produce the seeds that other farmers will use to grow cover crops on their farms. Some farmers might do this themselves, but others won’t have the time or energy to cover this step on their own. Cover crops don’t just grow on trees, you know.
Examples: Green Cover Seed, Grassland Oregon
Opportunity: selling and supplying cover crop seed
Those that grow the cover crop seed won’t always be the same players as those that sell the seeds. There might be aggregators who buy cover crop seeds from multiple producers, then sell them to farmers in bulk.
Examples: LaCrosse Seed’s Soil First
Opportunity: designing and manufacturing equipment for planting cover crops
Adding cover crop to an existing production system is a change-up for many producers. Because of this, farmers will need to rethink and, in some cases, redesign their existing equipment to suit the new system. They may even need entirely new equipment to get the job done.
Designing and manufacturing this new equipment is a great business opportunity. No-till drill seeders with applicators that can seed multiple shapes and sizes of seeds suitable for cover crop mixes, three-in-one cover crop seeders, air seeder equipment designed for green planting… what will we think of next?
Examples: Fennig Equipment, Vantilburg Farms; Also hear from Ralph Upton Jr., a farmer in Illinois who said of his project to create a cover crop seeder:
“My long term goal for creating this precision, multi-cover crop species seeder would be to make the planting of cover crops easier and more efficient, thereby increasing the number of farmers who would incorporate cover crops into their farming operations.”
Opportunity: planting the cover crop
Many farmers will plant their own cover crops, so says the most recent Cover Crop Survey, in which 68% of respondents reported that they planted their own cover crops in the 2015-2016 season. However, some prefer to pay someone else to do this step for them. This could be because a farmer lacks equipment, knowledge, or time that would enable them to plant on their own. Thus, the opportunity to create a cover crop planting business presents itself – either as a stand alone enterprise or as an addition to another role played by an agricultural retailer.
Opportunity: consulting and advising farmers and landowners
A vegetable producer in Oregon will have different goals and obstacles driving their use of cover crops than a livestock grower in Missouri. And each cover crop species will have different impacts for a farm. This is quite a nuanced path to navigate, and so it’s important to have a bit of help.
Consultants and farm advisors specializing in cover crops could be the guides for farmers to help them on their journey: from selecting which seeds to buy, deciding when to plant and how long to grow their crops and learning the best ways to manage them. These roles might be filled by creating specialist positions within existing organizations, or by forming non-profits aimed at research and education.
Not every farmer owns the land on which they work. There also exists the potential to consult with landowners in helping them package cover crop management into their leases with their farmer/producer tenants, to ensure that their soil resources are preserved and stewarded in the long run.
Examples: Forage & Cover Crop Specialist at Millborn Seeds, Center Seeds
Opportunity: grazing cattle or other livestock
The first word that comes to my mind when I think about this opportunity is “cooperative.” Here I envision an entrepreneurial spirit paying cover crop farmers to graze cattle, perhaps their own or the cattle of those in the area, on the cover crops during the winter time.
The livestock producer benefits from high quality feed, access to more land, and perhaps gets a few steps further in their aspirations to sell to that mindful consumer market that craves grass fed and finished beef. The row crop farmer on who’s land the livestock graze, will benefit from increased biodiversity in their system, enhanced soil health and nutrient cycles due to the manure and hoof action of the animals. Win win, right?
Opportunity: designing technology for cover crop management and record keeping
Keeping with the times, what if there were apps for tablets and phones that helped farmers plan, manage and record observations of their cover crops? Maybe the apps synced with weather data to predict rainfall or dry spells, or charted the benefits seen from the cover crop (such as nitrogen contributions) over time? This could be a golden ticket for savvy, ag-minded tech stars out there.
Opportunity: designing and manufacturing equipment for terminating cover crops and perhaps overseeding the cash crop
Similar to planting equipment needs, new designs for equipment suitable for terminating cover crops and overseeding a cash crop will be needed for cover crops to take off. Those using cover crops in their production systems are envisioning ways to maximize cover crop benefits, like planting their cash crops directly into cover crop residue. But they need the equipment to make this happen. Roller crimpers are a good example here, of a piece of equipment suitable for rolling the cover crop down in order to plant into the residue.
Well, there you have it: 8 business opportunities in the world of cover crops. This superhero conservation practice certainly has a promising future (and a deep rooted past!). What other opportunities in the world of cover crops are out there, waiting to be explored?
If you want to learn more, and see some salaries people in the cover crop world are making, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s “The Growing Business of Cover Crops.”
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to post your comments below, and check back in the future for more posts on cover crops and soil health.