Don't farm naked: how cover crops can keep farms green and growing year-round

Gabe Brown always covers up when he farms. And he wants all his fellow farmers to do the same.

Gabe is a recipient of NRDC’s 2012 Growing Green Award in the Food Producer category and a powerful voice in a growing network of farmers, agronomists, and advocates promoting ecologically integrated farming practices. Last week, I had the opportunity to hear him speak about an increasingly popular but still underutilized practice: cover cropping.

Traditional cover cropping refers to the planting of a second, non-commodity crop in coordination with a main crop to provide cover to fields that would otherwise be left bare much of the year, exposed to costly erosion and nutrient losses. Under this scenario, farmers grow cover crops not for sale, but to protect and improve soil health during the off-season.

But if Gabe’s management practices on his North Dakota ranch are any indication, there’s nothing traditional about the way leading farmers are cover cropping and building up their soils today; the space is rife with innovation.

Gabe is plainspoken, but when he talks about his soil it is with a level of pride and passion that is plain old inspirational. Hearing Gabe tell his story is also an education in the possible: highly productive, highly profitable, ecologically-integrated farms whose soils are teeming with life and where chemical inputs are nearly absent.

What Gabe describes is a fundamental change in philosophy when it comes to farming. Monoculture, he says, is “man trying to force his will on nature.” What farmers need, Gabe says, is not to patch up problems one by one, but to solve problems holistically and in concert with nature. With that frame of mind, dozens of different cover crops, zero tillage, crop and livestock diversity, and high density mob grazing practices are not ends in themselves, but simply tools he uses to regenerate his soils.

But there’s also a bottom line to building soil health with a diversity of plants and animals: an immense reduction in the inputs used to sustain monocultures: tillage, nitrogen fertilizer, and herbicides, without sacrificing yield in cash crops. Today, Gabe uses zero commercial fertilizer on his farm and very few other chemical inputs. Indeed he saves so much on input costs that his profits exceed $5 dollars for every bushel of corn he grows.  All of this while managing a smaller farm that he says gives him and his family greater security and quality of life.

All of this got me thinking. Not many people are closer to the impacts of climate change than farmers, who are witnessing more intense rain events, changing growing seasons, and greater erosion. More and more, they are seeing that these changes in climate are not being addressed by the current system. Against this backdrop, soil health is emerging as the keystone of an agriculture system that is more resilient to extreme weather events—a new paradigm that goes far beyond just calculating soil loss. Single practices like no till, implemented in isolation, are no longer cutting it. Farmers (and their advisors) are increasingly advancing a systems-based approach that ties together no till, cover cropping, and other holistic management practices.

So what will it take for everyone to farm like Gabe?

While the vast majority of farmed acres in the U.S. are not cover cropped, enthusiasm for the practice is beginning to push it beyond just a small niche of early adopters. A coordinated effort over the next few years to educate not just farmers, but their technical advisors, bankers, landowners, and insurers; encourage experimentation and innovation; fill data gaps; and knock down regulatory and market barriers to adoption has the potential to make a major contribution to creating critical mass across our major agricultural regions.

This will be no piece of cake. The incumbent system—dominated by monoculture—is profitable and culturally powerful. But there is no better educator than your neighbor.

If cover cropping is to become mainstream, it’s going to be because of a group of well-networked local “champions”—early adopters like Gabe who are not only doing innovative and exceptionally effective things on their own land, but are also willing to invite visitors onto their farms and to take their stories on the road. They will need to be supported by networks of similarly forward thinking advisors, researchers, seed dealers, and consumers building a market for healthy food grown on healthy soils.

And while many farmers planting cover crops today benefit from cost sharing provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, if the practice is to take off, farmers will need to turn their cover crops into cash crops. For farmers like Gabe, growing cover crops and grazing cattle is a natural fit. He not only profits from his main cash crops and the sale of his various cover crops, but also from a successful grass-finished beef business.

Markets for biomass may offer another such opportunity for farmers to monetize their cover crops. Here at NRDC, we believe that if done carefully, cover crops harvested for next-generation bioenergy production could provide extra income to farmers without displacing food production or significantly impacting the amount of land available to grow food crops.

I’m back in New York City now, far from where the bulk of cover crops are being put in the ground. But it’s clear to me that water, climate, and energy issues—as well as a growing consumer connection between our own health and the health of the foods we eat—are getting people to think about soil differently. Despite barriers that range from cultural to financial to regulatory, a small but growing number of farmers across the country are experimenting with cocktails of multiple cover crops, planting technologies and harvest schedules, and integrated crop and livestock operations where cover crops serve as forage or support livestock grazing. The next few years should be an exciting time.