According to a recent article on the Mother Jones website, the $24 million paid to farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to plant cover crops in 2015 is estimated to provide $22 billion in ecosystem benefits to that area (says the Chesapeake Bay Foundation). These benefits include improved fisheries because there is no more algal blooms killing sea life which also brings improved tourism and increased property values. That’s a pretty substantial ROI when you factor in all the economic, environmental, and social benefits.
This government subsidy for cover crops equals about $90/acre–a healthy incentive for trying this soil fertility building practice which not only stabilizes soil from erosion and reduces nitrogen fertilizer run off, but also helps to sequester soil carbon and fix nitrogen in the soil which reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers that are causing pollution challenges throughout the Midwest and creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.
Another study by Penn State in 2016 suggests that these ecosystem benefits can be achieved in as little as 2 years.
But the challenge is having farmers continue to plant cover crops even if they don’t get subsidies. An EWG study used GIS mapping that suggested that only 40% of farmers that got cost-share funding kept using cover crops without ongoing financial support. However, another study was also noted that said 75% of farmers surveyed said they would continue cover crops after subsidies. The EWG study also showed that anywhere from 2-7% of the farmland in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa are actually in cover crops. Luckily NRCS EQIP subsidies for cover crops have been growing in those 3 states, moving from 0% to as much as 20% of EQIP contracts in the last 10 years with dramatic rises taking place since 2011. But we need cover crops on at least 60% of the land to address the critical water quality issues we are facing.
A No-Till Farmer article notes that there is farmer concern about the risk of cover crops if the crop is being grown solely for soil fertility. Integrating livestock that can use the cover crop as forage reduces that risk and allows for more flexibility in the system. Holistic Management practitioner Jonathan Cobb shares his experience of how much more he is enjoying farming after shifting to a no-till, cover crop, and livestock system. “It was one of the most impactful events of my life. It was so intriguing to think there might be a way to farm that didn’t involve chasing more and more acres,” states Cobb.
Gabe Brown has also consistently gotten good return on investments in cover crops, as has Gail Fuller. To learn more about how Holistic Management producers have improved soil health visit HMI’s Soil and Conservation Page .
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