Good News About Cover Crops from the Census of Agriculture

Last week USDA released the results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture. The previous 2012 Census was the first one to include a question about cover crops. While the 2012 Census provided the first nationwide overview of cover crop use, state-by-state, the 2017 Census provides the first opportunity to quantify changes in cover crop use over a five-year period.

Are you ready to know what the Census says? Drumroll please….

Between 2012 and 2017, cover crop planting increased by 5 million acres!

That’s right folks. In 2012, farmers planted a little over 10 million acres of cover crops. In 2017, they planted over 15 million—15,390,674 acres, to be exact. That’s about a 50% increase nationwide. We have the growing soil health movement to thank for that—a group effort on the part of farmers, soil scientists, conservation districts, state agriculture departments, USDA, conservation NGOs, seed companies, trade groups, lawmakers, journalists and food corporations who teamed up to get out the word on cover crops and cover 5 million acres of ground in 5 years.

Cover crop acreage increased by 100% or more in eight states

While the national cover crop acreage increased by 50% since 2012, state-by-state the change in cover crop acreage varies widely. Twenty states increased their cover crop acreage by more than 50%, and eight of those more than doubled cover crop acreage since 2012. 

Table 1. Data from 2017 Census of Agriculture, calculations and ranking by author

It would be interesting to look at each of these states and see what actions or policies led to this positive outcome. For example, Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative funds a variety of watershed and cost-share programs to help farmers put best management practices like cover crops in place. Other states may have similar policies, or there may be grassroots advocacy and farmer-to-farmer cover crop training that led to the increase.

While most states increased their cover crop acreage by more than 5%, there were a few states that had increases smaller than 5% or decreased their cover crop acreage. California is notable among these states, as a top 10 state for agricultural production that only increased acreage by 3% since 2012. Some people are understandably skeptical of using cover crops in irrigated systems like California's, but the truth is that improved soil health can lead to more efficient water use. (See this example of dryland farming with cover crops and other soil health practices in Kansas.) With over nine million acres of total cropland in the state and less than 4% using cover crops, there is a lot of room for improvement. A few other states decreased in cover crop acreage since 2012, but since those states did not have many acres planted to cover crops then, it is not a significant loss. It is still worth taking a closer look at Rhode Island, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Alaska to see why those states lost cover crops in the past few years. 

The top states for total cover crops and % of cropland using cover crops are completely different lists

As was the case in 2012, the top states for total number of cover crops and ranked by the % of total cropland acreage in the state planted to cover crops are very different (Pennsylvania is the only state to make both lists). That tells us how far we have come, but also how far we need to go.

In a nutshell, Mid-Atlantic states with smaller cropland areas and/or Chesapeake Bay funding for water quality practices have covered more of their cropland than other states. Midwestern states with a large area of cropland to cover still have a long way to go to get cover crops on a high percentage of land. This is not a reason to be discouraged; the past five years have shown what the broader agriculture and policy-making groups can accomplish together with effort.   

Table 2. Data from 2017 Census of Agriculture, calculations and ranking by author

For several of these states, the effort really shows. Iowa moved to second place from ninth place in 2012, and Nebraska and Ohio both moved into the top 10. Georgia and North Carolina lost their spots in the top ten but still improved their cover crop acreage by 43% and 23%, respectively.

Table 3. Data from 2017 Census of Agriculture, calculations and ranking by author

I included all eleven of the states with 10% or more of their cropland acreage planted to cover crops. There isn’t a big difference in the 2012 and 2017 top list, but the overall % of cropland for each state is higher. Maine deserves a shout-out for increasing their acreage by 89% and increasing their land in cover crops from 6% to 12%.

Percent of cropland acreage is not a perfect way to measure a state’s success—take Rhode Island, for example, whose cover crop acreage decreased since 2012 and yet is still a top state in terms of % of overall cropland (Rhode Island's total cropland acres also increased since 2012, so there may be other things going on there. See this blog from American Farmland Trust for analysis of farmland trends). However, we can look at Maryland and other states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, where there is a relatively high area of cropland and a relatively high percent of land planted to cover crops as examples of what can be achieved. Maryland is well-known for its generous cover crop-cost share program. Perhaps that’s a lesson that the most effective way to get cover crops planted fast is to pay for them, whether that’s through traditional cost-share programs or new approaches like the Iowa crop insurance pilot program.

Until the next Census of Agriculture, we have our work cut out for us to make more progress, and it’s even more crucial now than ever, as farm incomes are dropping, and climate change is taking a heavy toll on farms. Cover crops can help farmers weather the coming storm, but we won’t see significant acreage increase in cover crops without policies and programs to support it. Stay tuned, as we will be working alongside partners to cover the necessary ground.

UPDATE: Want to learn more? See USDA SARE maps and rankings in this Cover Crop Strategies article.

About the Authors

Lara Bryant

Deputy Director, Water & Agriculture; Nature Program

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