New Effort Aims to Help Midwest Farmers Plant Cover Crops on a Half a Million Acres

June 7, 2022, 4 p.m. ·

A picture of a farm field, with green plants growing in rows. Between the green rows are dry, beige plants from a past season.
Soybeans poke through a cover crop of cereal rye. Curtis Wilson, a farmer in west-central Iowa, also uses cereal rye and spray it with herbicide in the spring. “This rye is kind of shading it,” Wilson said. “So killing it now, the beans will get started growing up through it and then the rye will decay and fall down, create ground cover to stop oncoming weeds and allow the beans to grow up through it.” (Photo courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa)

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Curtis Wilson has been using cover crops on his west-central Iowa farmland for about five years. Using cover plants, such as cereal rye, helps prevent soil erosion on his hilly ground during the off-season.

“In keeping the soil there, you keep all the nutrients where you need it instead of allowing it to wash down the river,” Wilson said.

An Iowa program paid him $25 per acre on 160 acres of cover crops in his first year planting them and $15 per acre every year after. It helped make it possible for him to go out and buy seed.

Now a new initiative from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, will award $2.6 million in grants to plant cover crops on half a million acres in the Midwest this year. The foundation, a private conservation grant maker created by Congress, partnered with ADM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for the funds.

The five grants were awarded to Practical Farmers of Iowa, American Farmland Trust, Ducks Unlimited, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts and Minnesota Soil Health Coalition.

The groups will provide farmers across Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and Minnesota with per acre funding to plant cover crops as well as resources and assistance to help them adopt the practice. Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts also partially matched the funds they were awarded.

Todd Hogrefe, the director of the foundation’s central regional office, said the foundation hopes the grants will expand the number of acres planted with cover crops, which provide a number of environmental benefits. Those include improving soil health and water resources, enhancing habitat for wildlife and storing carbon in the ground.

“On top of that, we’re also aiming to benefit farmers by improving the productivity and profitability of their operations,” Hogrefe said.

Planting cover crops on half a million acres is “an aggressive goal,” Hogrefe said, but “there is a lot more need out there and it’s our hope that as farmers see these practices get put on the ground, and see the success some are having with them, that they’ll become more interested in it and it will catalyze broader adoption across the landscape.”

Practical Farmers of Iowa has been involved in cost share programs to help farmers implement cover crops since 2015, said Lydia English, the organization’s field crops viability manager. She said the grants are a great start to getting more acres under conservation practices.

The group hopes to help more than 800 farmers through the grant, including farmers who aren’t a part of the PFI network.

“Realistically, we would love to see cover crops before every acre of soybeans [in Iowa],” English said. “Fifty percent adoption each year is, I think, a totally reasonable target.”

The group’s mission is to build resilient farms and communities, and English said she sees cover crops as a great step to do that.

“Cover crops lead to more resilience in the face of unpredictable weather conditions,” she said, “but they also help the farmer cut back on having to buy products off farm that are increasingly expensive and keep those dollars churning more locally.”

Demands for funds outstrips supply

Experts say demand for state and federal incentive programs for cover crops usually outpaces available funding. That makes widespread adoption of cover crops a challenge.

Jonathan Coppess, the director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program at the University of Illinois, said adopting cover crops is “not an easy thing to do,” because it adds cost and risk to farmers’ operations. Yet he argues every dollar spent incentivizing cover crops helps improve soil health and reduces the amount of nutrients from farm fields going into waterways.

“We're increasing that demand. We're increasing adoption,” Coppess said. “It’s just, if you measure it against the number of acres that, say, we need nutrient loss reduction strategies, we are behind, or we're struggling to sort of make those marks or make those goals.”

Earlier this year, the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service announced an investment of $38 million to help farmers plant cover crops across 11 states, including Iowa, Michigan and South Dakota. Still, Coppess said these types of incentive programs are “way oversubscribed,” and a large number of applications that are approved can’t be funded because there’s not enough money in the programs.

He pointed to an Illinois Department of Agriculture program that offers farmers a $5 an acre crop insurance premium discount for planting cover crops. The demand for the discount exceeded funds available.

“Our challenge is reaching sufficient acres across the board to meet the goals that we have for things like nutrient loss reduction,” Coppess said. “To be perfectly blunt, we don’t put enough money into conservation. It’s probably as simple as that.”

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This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest including St. Louis Public Radio. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM