Wednesday, August 22, 2018

How Cover Crops Help Save the Planet

By Gwen Anderson

Like most kids, I learned about photosynthesis when I was in grade school.  I learned that plants ate sunshine, breathed in carbon dioxide, and exhaled oxygen.  I remember as a child thinking how great it was that I was exhaling what my new tree out back was inhaling, and in turn, it was exhaling what I needed as well.  I knew protecting the forests was good for the planet; we learned about it every Earth Day.  What I didn’t know is that we should also be protecting our farmlands.

As we are growing our crops, they are eating all of that sunshine, breathing in all of that carbon dioxide, taking nutrients out of the soil to grow.  Then we harvest those crops.  They stop breathing in that carbon dioxide.  Then what?  On the typical conventional farm, the lands sits empty, doing nothing.  Rain comes, washes away all of that expensive chemical fertilizer, the ground gets hard and cracked as it dries, and blows away in the wind.  Next year, they plant seeds, spray it with more chemicals because they all washed away the year before, harvest the crop once it grows, if it grows.  Rinse, repeat. 

Cover crop (millet, oats, rye grass, and 3 types of clover)
planted 2 and a half weeks ago in our fields.
That isn’t how we do things at Harmony Valley Farm.  Farmer Richard has been planting cover crops for over 40 years.  As soon as we are done harvesting, we either plant a new crop if the season is early yet, or we “put the field to bed” by planting cover crops.  Right now, we already have 30 acres of our farm planted with cover crops, and will continue planting it as the harvests keep coming in.  As it stands, about 70% of our ground will be cover cropped by fall, and we are increasing that number by seeding grass and clover into our late harvested crops like Brussels sprouts and fall broccoli.

Cover crop (winter rye, rye grass, and 3 types of clover) in
the same field as above, planted one week later.
What are cover crops?  They are crops that cover the ground!  We don’t sell them, they aren’t vegetables.  They are there to photosynthesize away while we wait for the planting season to start again.  Of course, there are plenty of other benefits as well, like holding nutrients in the ground and literally holding the ground in place, instead of letting it wash away in the rain and wind.  They help build up the organic matter in soil, which translates to healthier soil, which is able to better feed the crops we grow and filter the water as it drains, keeping the nutrients in our soil instead of our waterways.  Healthier soil also holds more water, so there is less run off in the first place, and more water for plants to utilize in times of drought.

One thing my childhood rendition of photosynthesis left out is what the plants do with that carbon dioxide they breathe in.  While they do use some of it to grow, because carbon is the building block of life, they also leak the extra carbon they don’t use to grow right down into the soil itself, which feeds micro-organisms that in turn produce food for the plant.  And why is this so important and groundbreaking?  Because right now, there is too much carbon in the air, which is the leading cause of climate change.  By allowing Mother Nature to take all of that carbon that we humans have been pulling out of the ground for centuries and putting it back into the ground, we can have a real impact on climate change.  Rumor is we could even reverse climate change it if we act quickly. According to an article posted in April, 2014 by the Rodale Institute: “If management of all current cropland shifted to reflect the regenerative model as practiced at the research sites included in [Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming], more than 40% of annual emissions could potentially be captured.  If, at the same time, all global pasture was managed to a regenerative model, an additional 71% could be sequestered.  Essentially, passing the 100% mark means a drawing down of excess greenhouse gases, resulting in the reversal of the greenhouse effect.”

Map of the world's farmland, indicating average size of farms, picture from
About one third of the Earth’s land is used for farming, and while the number of farmers using cover crops is at an all-time high right now, those numbers are still remarkably small.  According to the Des Moines Register in a study published in March 2017, only 2.6% of Iowa’s almost 23 million acres of farmland had cover crop on it in 2016, which was barely better than Illinois’ 2.3%.  Iowa has a goal of getting 12.6 million acres of farm land planted to cover crops, but at the current rate it will take about 3 decades to achieve.  According to Ben Dobson, who was hired on by Stone House Farms in Livingston, NY to convert the 2,200 acre farm from conventional to organic, in their first year alone they increased their soil carbon content by 0.7%.  That amounted to 15 tons of carbon dioxide being removed from the air per acre.  The average passenger vehicle emits 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year according to the EPA.  Stone House Farms managed to take the emissions of just over 3 cars back into their soil per acre per year.  Imagine how much carbon could be placed back into the ground if we could get the whole world on board with this!  If Iowa can reach their goal of 12.6 million acres, we are talking about 189 million tons of carbon dioxide (or just over 4 million cars’ worth) in just one year, and that is only half of one state’s farmland. 

Of course, planting cover crops is just one aspect of regenerative farming which is a more holistic approach to soil health, results in cleaner waterways, puts carbon back into the ground, and ultimately helps us combat climate change.  Things such as conservation tilling, crop rotations, composting, diversifying crops that are grown, and the reintegration of animals to the farm are all needed for maximum effectiveness of the regenerative farming model.  And in order for this to be done, more than one eco-minded family farm at a time, we need open communication between farmers, and the backing of government policy to encourage the changes instead of reinforcing the mono-crop farming habits of today.  The good news is that there is a new certification, the regenerative organic certification, which is currently being piloted by the Rodale Institute.  Organic Valley is also piloting its own program in California, where there are already incentive programs in place for “carbon farming” planning and practices.

Per the Rodale Institute, the goal of the regenerative organic certification is to “increase soil organic matter over time, improve animal welfare, provide economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers, and create resilient regional ecosystems and communities.”  The aim is not to replace current organic practices, but rather to support them as well as make it easier for widespread adaptation of the regenerative farming model.  This is something that has really caught our interest here at Harmony Valley Farm, and we look forward to hearing more about it in the future.

The initiatives here in the US aren’t the only ones aiming to combat climate control through regenerative farming.  Regeneration International, a world-wide non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and practicing regenerative farming, has played a huge role in bringing the 4 per 1000: Soils for Food Security and Climate Initiative to the world stage.  4 per 1000 is a regenerative farming initiative launched by the French government in December 2015, and goes hand in hand with the Paris Climate Accord, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement between 197 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that was also signed that same month.  However, out of the 197 countries to sign the Paris Climate Accord, only 36 of them have also committed to regenerative farming practices.  In order to bring awareness to the world benefiting practice, Regeneration International has assisted in bringing 1 per 4000 Initiative teaching events to Washington DC, Mexico City, and Montreal, Canada.  In October of this year, they are partnering with South African agencies as well as the French and German governments to hold a symposium in Johannesburg.

Little baby clover (cover crop) overseeded
in our
Brussels sprout field.
We’ve talked about how great regenerative farming is for the planet, but what does it do for farmers?  As I mentioned earlier, Farmer Richard has been planting cover crops for over 40 years, well before the regenerative farming movement caught his attention, because of the benefit it gives the farm and because it is the right thing to do.  Something he knows well is that healthy soil means healthy crops.  And healthy crops are good for the bottom line.  Del Ficke, a 5th generation farmer from Pleasant Dale, NE who adopted practices such as cover crops, reintegrating livestock, and using manure instead of chemical fertilizer, told the Union of Concerned Scientists “I used to farm 7,000 acres. Now I’m less than 700 acres, but 70 percent more profitable.”  While starting these practices takes time and commitment, and are oftentimes difficult, when your soil is healthy and you are following good farming practices, regenerative farming can produce yields comparable to conventional crops, or even better yields, without damaging the planet.  “It’s a ripple effect,” Ficke says.  “Money will follow the sustainability.”  Once we can show the everyday farmer how these practices can not only help the environment, but make their farms more productive and economical, it is only a matter of time before everyone gets on board.  Let’s just hope it's not too late.

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