Recovering Cover Crop Cost

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    Dust fills the air as a combine harvests corn at an Illinois farm. (AP/Joshua A. Bickel)
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    Cereal rye grows under a corn crop at a farm near Allerton, Illinois. The corn will be harvested and the rye will continue to grow through the winter. (AP/Joshua A. Bickel)
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    Farmer Doug Downs drives his combine past a soybean field. (AP/Joshua A. Bickel)
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    A corn harvester dumps corn kernels into a grain wagon. (AP/Joshua A. Bickel)
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    Farmer Curt Elmore checks his corn crop at his Illinois farm. (AP/Joshua A. Bickel)
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Cover crops help enrich soil with nutrients. They also conserve topsoil and prevent runoff into waterways. Despite these benefits, a new study suggests farmers should count the cost of covering.

What are “cover crops”? In the off-season, rather than leave unplanted fields open to the elements, farmers may choose to sow hardy plants like rye and red clover. They grow through winter and spring. These sturdy plants’ roots help stabilize the soil, fixing it in place despite heavy rains and preventing fertilizer runoff. They help contain carbon and even add nutrients to the earth. Farmers remove or till under the cover crops before sowing their main “cash crops,” such as soybeans or corn.

The federal government, many states, and even some food companies offer financial benefits to farmers who grow cover crops. Even so, some farmers remain wary.

Last year, researchers studied satellite images of more than 90,000 fields across six states. They discovered that fields with cover crops produced fewer cash crops. For corn fields, harvests fell by 5.5%. In soybean fields, harvests fell by 3.5%.

Those might not look like big numbers. But in farming, every bushel counts.

Illinois farmer Doug Downs planted a rye cover. The field turned soggy. He waited weeks before he could plant soybeans. The results: a smaller harvest and less money.

“Growing a cover crop cost me $250 an acre,” says Downs. “And I spent $50 an acre doing it.”

So should farmers give up on covers?

Researchers suggest farmers need help choosing and maintaining the right cover crops. According to Terry Cosby, chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, cover crops are worth it. It just takes time.

But in farming, time is money. Curt Elmore, another Illinois farmer, still plants cover crops. But he needs help handling the added cost.

“If this is an imperative, then somebody is going to have to pay for it,” he says.

Over time, cover crops can make fields healthier, even if farmers don’t see the benefits right away. But can farmers afford to lose produce while they wait? And if not, who covers the cost?

For professional farmers, cover crops are a big decision. But you can try it in your home garden for much cheaper. Try planting something like rye or clover in winter. See how it affects your garden’s growth later in the year.

God’s work in our lives is much like farming. He plants good seeds in our hearts. We don’t always see the fruit right away. But He is faithful to finish the work He begins. (Philippians 1:6)

Why? Sustainable farming now helps in the future. But to make it work, farmers may need help in the present.

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