Constant Craving Cover Crops
I was recently tooling around farming websites looking for story ideas when I found this little nugget of a lede about farm trends:
When you can spot a new practice from the highway, without even looking for it, it’s about to go mainstream.
The writer was talking about cover crops, which are old news to anyone lightly versed in organic farming. But as superweeds march forward in their bid to demolish transgenic crops, more farmers are looking to cover crops -- buckwheat, hairy vetch, red clover -- to fight them off, and build a little soil in the process. Cover cropping, in turn, can aid Midwestern commodity corn farmers, for example, reduce their dependence on fertilizers. Win-win.
It all reminded me of a story I wrote in the late winter of 2013 about the organic farmers and the NRCS' collaboration to boost cover crop use, among other sustainable practices. The story centered on Commerce, Ga. farmers the Veggie Patch, a rather large, in Southern terms, organic farm located within seed broadcasting distance from Interstate 85. I wrote it, really, for my own edification, but also to further explain to my fellow numbskulls all the head-scratchin' and worryin' your average farmer goes through. It ain't just tossing seeds (Superchunk reference there for ya). Here's the thing in its entirety:
A head of locally grown, organic broccoli may fetch a premium at a supermarket, but it’s not a farmer’s prized crop. Neither are the collards, kale or turnips that prop up production through the winter as farmers barely idle in wait for a busy summer. Greenhouses where plants germinate and experimental growing techniques take root aren’t a farmer’s most vital square of real estate.
As a farmer walks through her fields, it’s the soil underfoot that earns more worry and care than any plant.
“Soil is living,” said Dr. James Bouchard, a doctor and farmer who oversees 33 productive acres in Jackson county called the Veggie Patch. “It’s like a human body.”
And just like a human body, Bouchard and his farmers help the soil slumber to regain its strength for another hefty growing season. Throughout the rolling North Georgia hills where the Veggie Patch sources its produce, winter crops are rounding out their terms in the field as spring and summer plants wait inside polycarbonate walls for their turn. But another crop not meant for consumption blankets parts of the acreage and allows it to rest.
Lupin is a legume historically used between cotton and sorghum rotations to replenish nitrogen in the soil. But at the advice of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, modern farms like the Veggie Patch have tapped it as an erosion preventative as well as for its traditional use.
Over the course of a growing season, crops deplete the soil of the nutrients necessary for continued cultivation. Plants suck up phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen, as well as many micronutrients, from the dirt as they grow. And as a cover crop like lupin grows to 3 or 4 feet in height, it adds roughly 300 pounds of much-needed nitrogen back into the soil. When it comes time to plant again, Veggie Patch’s farmers either will mow down the lupin or turn the soil over, depending on how the field will be used that season. A hefty heap of compost does the rest.
Lupin, though, isn’t the most affordable choice as far as cover crops grow, which is where the NRCS comes in. Tasked with the mission of maintaining the nation’s natural resources, including soil, NRCS offers cost-sharing programs for farmers and ranchers to help preserve that prized crop of soil. To install energy-efficient season extenders like high tunnel hoop houses, NRCS can defray between 70 percent to 80 percent of the cost, therefore incentivizing, as the agencies are wont to describe the act, land and soil conservation. Bouchard’s farm, with 33 working acres, a dozen of which are in full veggie production, is by far the biggest organic farm that NRCS Jackson county agent Glenn Head visits. Large chicken farms often call on him to assess conservation issues, but the average size of vegetable farms is less than 5 acres, he said. NRCS administered almost 1,900 conservation contracts, termed EQIP, in Georgia in 2012 for a grand total incentive outlay of nearly $26 million. Beyond the incentive program, farmers will point to the farm plans and soil maps drawn up by NRCS as the most useful tool provided by the agency. Bouchard showed off a binder thick with aerial photographs and soil tests that helped him coordinate efforts to mitigate erosion on his land.
Some striking evidence of erosion mars the landscape around Bouchard’s farm, especially near the office and greenhouses. There a paved road sends any deluge of rainwater flowing downhill toward growing plots. The downpours have cut a deepening ravine into the slope, an abrading that will threaten vital plots below in the coming decades.
“It’s on my to-do list,” Bouchard said.
A creek that halves Bouchard’s acreage forms the farm’s other slopes. The bulk is pasture land for cattle. On those inclines, Bouchard and his 10-person staff of year-round farmers have taken a proactive approach to erosion. Along an almost 30 percent grade toward the creek, farmers broadcasted crimson clover seed across the plot, and followed that cover cropping with another broadcast of turnips, collards or kale. The result is both erosion resistor and veggie productive. Farmers use a similar practice in a flatter plane further down the creek, using a precision planter to place the production crops in rows among the cover, rather than the scattershot approach flung across the slope. The cover crop, too, acts as a pest repellent and keeps the collards and kale from flopping onto the soil and therefore easing harvest.
On a grey March morning when only a few hands are at work in the fields, Bouchard crested the farm’s hills in a muddy Isuzu Trooper, passing by cows owned by a farmer who leases out Bouchard’s acres for pasture. As a lifelong man of medicine, his interest in organic food stems from his healing practice. Just as he offers his soil rest, he treats its nutrient deficiency, too, just like a patient. But as he drove by rows of lettuce destined for a Whole Food’s produce cooler, his agrarian wisdom dug deeper than medicinal similes.
“You don’t mine the soil as you do for gold,” he said.