Iowa Breaks New Ground with Innovative Cover Crop Incentive

Iowa shows great leadership by offering to cover part of crop insurance premiums for farmers who plant cover crops.
cover crops Lehman farm Iowa
A field of red clover planted after oats on Aaron Lehman's Iowa family farm
Credit: NRDC, John Brecher

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) just launched a very promising new program that will give farmers who plant cover crops a $5 per acre discount on their crop insurance over the next three years.

This is fantastic news: NRDC worked closely with our partner groups – Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Farmers Union, and Iowa Environmental Council - to support IDALS in this effort. We are excited at the initiative shown here, and can’t wait to see more cover crops planted in Iowa because of the program.

You may wonder why this is such a big deal for the environment. Healthy soil and clean water are closely connected. Cover crops – a non-commodity crop grown after a cash crop for the express purpose of protecting and enriching the soil – do a lot to improve water quality from the impacts of farm runoff. For example, just by planting cover crops, we could reduce nitrates loading to source water by 28% and phosphorus by 50%, according to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. More cover crops will lead to cleaner water for fishing and swimming, fewer harmful algal blooms in lakes and estuaries, and cleaner source water for downstream drinking water utilities to draw from. Yet, cover crops are only used on about 2.5% of American cropland (only 1.4% of Iowa cropland), according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. This is partly because it takes time and money for farmers to use cover crops effectively, and they may be wary of trying a new practice without a financial incentive. If we create policies and programs that encourage more farmers to use cover crops, we can significantly improve water quality.

USDA surveys show that more farmers would consider planting cover crops if they had a discount on their crop insurance. Crop insurance is tremendously popular, especially in the Midwest. About 80% of Iowa cropland is insured through the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP).The Iowa program isn’t a discount exactly. Iowa is working with USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) (the agency responsible for administering the FCIP) to cover part of the farmers insurance premium, but the actual cost of the insurance isn’t changing. It’s like your employer covering part of your healthcare; IDALS is just picking up a little bit of the tab for farmers who plant cover crops on “new” acres -  those that have not received other payments for the practice. This will reduce the farmers' out of pocket costs for crop insurance. And in return, Iowa’s water will be cleaner.

We are giving IDALS and RMA a huge thumbs-up for this one. This is great leadership by state and federal agencies working with local farmers and organizations to find solutions for water quality problems. Way to go! We can’t wait to see all that rich black Iowa soil covered in a gorgeous field of cover crops. If all goes well, this idea may well catch on to encourage cover crops in states beyond Iowa. NRDC is gratified to have been part of the team that helped make this opportunity possible, but the outcome is really up to farmers and the local interests supporting them. 

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