A concentrated shift within the agricultural landscape has more farmers and producers adopting conservation practices. These practices mitigate environmental damage and reduce the negative impacts of other farming methods that contributed to pollution and degradation of soil. Crop diversity, integrated pest management systems, reducing or eliminating tillage and planting cover crops are all climate-smart agriculture practices key to the longevity and future of global agriculture.
And it’s happening right in your backyard.
Here, in Indiana, many landowners and farmers have already jumped on board the cover crop bandwagon. In fact, according to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, aside from corn and soybeans, cover crops like ryegrass, crimson clover, oats, and cereal rye are planted on more acreage than any other commodity crop in the state. In 2019, a survey found that 230,000 acres were planted with cover crops or cereal grains in the Hoosier State, resulting in the prevention of an estimated 1.2 million tons of sediment from entering the state’s waterways, “along with 3 million pounds of nitrogen and 1.5 million pounds of phosphorus.”
Here, in Indiana, many landowners and farmers have already jumped on board the cover crop bandwagon. In fact, according to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, aside from corn and soybeans, cover crops like ryegrass, crimson clover, oats and cereal rye are planted on more acreage than any other commodity crop in the state. In 2019, a survey found that 230,000 acres were planted with cover crops or cereal grains in the Hoosier State, resulting in the prevention of an estimated 1.2 million tons of sediment from entering the state’s waterways, “along with 3 million pounds of nitrogen and 1.5 million pounds of phosphorus.”
But why? What makes Indiana farmers such cover crop enthusiasts? And what does that say about other conservation practices across the state?
Linda Prokopy, a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Purdue University, credits Indiana’s high adoption rate with how cover crops and other conservation practices are promoted, especially through the USDA’s Indiana Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We’ve investigated why this is,” said Prokopy, who recently published a study that identified cover crop adoption rates from county to county. “We think one of the key determinants for this cover crop culture happening is when there was a private sector person, which could be a farmer or an adviser, who partners with a government agency to promote cover crops.”
“That private-public partnership really transforms the perception of them in that county.”
Other factors that played a role in a county’s cover crop adoption rate included cost-share funds, watershed grants and other environmental grants outside of the other incentives provided by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. Researchers found that the additional programs were more attractive in cover crop adoption because “their contracts were usually shorter (one year) and their requirements less onerous.”
Farm size and farm type also played a role in adoption rates. For instance, organic, pasteurized livestock and smaller-scale farms were more inclined to use cover crops because the smaller, more specialized fields allowed growers to better coordinate the timing of cover crop planting and termination. Further, researchers found that these sorts of producers typically were “more likely to care about soil health.”
What about leased Indiana farmland? Are landowners always on the same page as their tenants?
Not always. With 56,649 farming operations and 94,000 farmers in the Hoosier State, about 60 percent of the land that is farmed is actually rented from landowners, says Prokopy. And landowners are not always on the same page when it comes to conservation practices like cover crops and no till unless there is an economic gain.
“When we improve soil health on land, there aren’t immediate benefits in terms of land value,” says Prokopy. “The landowner doesn’t see the value and it just means potentially that they’re getting lower rent for a while. And their revenue comes from the rental value of the land, which is why these practices are often a hard sell.”
So how do farmers convince landowners to try these practices on the land that they lease?
- Get on the same page. Explain the environmental benefits that conservation practices bring to the land. Cover crops and no-till can reduce erosion and improve water quality and help build resiliency during droughts or floods.
- Explain long-term community benefits. Less nitrogen and phosphorous run-off mean fewer health hazards to people and wildlife. It also keeps water treatment costs sustainable.
- Collaborate on future economic success. Landowners who allow their farmers to adopt conservation practices will reap benefits as healthier soil equals healthier land and a continued partnership for future generations. Continued improvement of the land through cover crops, no-till, and other practices allows both the farmer and the landowner solid returns on both sides of their investment: healthier and heartier yields and quality land management.