Can Cover Crops Fix Farms Forever?

12 Sep, 2013

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Chatting with David Brandt outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn’t look too much like a farmer—what a casting director might call “too on the nose.” He’s a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.

Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture—a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina. In his g-droppin’ Midwestern monotone, he’s telling me about his cover crops—fall plantings that blanket the ground in winter and are allowed to rot in place come spring, a practice as eyebrow-raising in corn country as holding a naked yoga class in the pasture. The plot I can see looks just about identical to the carpet of corn that stretches from eastern Ohio to western Nebraska. But last winter it would have looked very different: While the neighbors’ fields lay fallow, Brandt’s teemed with a mix of as many as 14 different plant species.

“Our cover crops work together like a community—you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.

But Brandt’s not trying to go organic—he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food—even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

Those are big promises, but standing in the shade of Brandt’s barn this June morning, I hear a commotion in the nearby warehouse where he stores his cover-crop seeds. Turns out that I’m not the only one visiting Brandt’s farm. The Natural Resources Conservation Service—a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that grew from Dust Bowl-era efforts to preserve soil—is holding a training for its agents on how to talk to farmers about cover crops and their relationship to soil.

Inside the warehouse, where 50-pound bags of cover-crop seeds line one wall, three dozen NRCS managers and agents, from as far away as Maine and Hawaii, are gathered along tables facing a projection screen. Brandt takes his place in front of the crowd. Presenting slides of fields flush with a combination of cover crops including hairy vetch, rye, and radishes, he becomes animated. We listen raptly and nod approvingly. It feels like a revival meeting.

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