With 2017 in the rear view mirror, our attention is now focused on what 2018 will bring.
I’m sure we’ve all heard various prognosticators’ expectations for the new year, but did you hear anyone predict the influences that may affect the growing cover crop movement in the year ahead?
As I thought about this, I identified three key factors that will undoubtedly influence cover crops in the year ahead.
Currently, the next Farm Bill is being crafted in Washington with input from various stakeholders across the nation.
Cover crops and related aspects of soil health are clearly being backed by various groups for inclusion in the country’s agricultural blueprint for next five years.
Crop insurance and how it relates to cover crops has been one of the areas being revised. Already, the state of Iowa has agreed to pay $5 an acre toward the crop insurance premium for those using cover crops in a given field for the first time.
This has sent a strong signal to the rest of the country that cover crops are a part of the crop insurance equation.
Another key factor that may affect cover crop adoption (maybe as the wild card) is the price of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen.
Long-term cover croppers have consistently experienced more efficient fertilizer use in conjunction with a well-managed cover crop.
If the price of nitrogen increases substantially, there will not be enough nitrogen-producing legume cover crops to meet the demand.
Farmers are primed like never before to use cover crops, and it won’t take much of an incentive to do so.
Also in the wild-card category is the weather. A normal or potentially earlier maturity for cash crops could open up more acres to cover crops. But then again, a later season would diminish what can get planted.
Large corporate market forces, however, may prove to be the most influential factor in setting the direction of cover cropping in 2018.
General Mills, Walmart and Smithfield Foods have crafted various versions of a “sustainability” plan that includes cover crop, soil health and reduced fertilizer components. Land O`Lakes recently tapped Jason Weller, the former chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to lead its Sustain program.
Prepared meal kit provider Blue Apron and grocery chain Whole Foods each require farmers to list the extent that cover crops are used in growing produce.
Perhaps most intriguing is Wrangler Jeans launching its “Tough Denim, Gentle Footprint” initiative this past year. Part of this program is to encourage cotton farmers to use cover crops and other soil health practices.
Each of these corporations has direct connections with consumers who can easily comprehend the cover crop story, allowing for compelling marketing. It’s probably only a matter of time before Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and others come up with similar incentives. I certainly would prefer to see the market, rather than government regulations, drive the use of cover crops.
Regardless of what happens in 2018, farmers are hungry for solid information that helps them be better managers and stewards of the land, and bolsters their bottom lines.
It’s a delicate balancing act between environmental responsibility and economic success, but more and more farmers are discovering the value cover crops offer, both in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world.
It’s a constant learning curve, and that’s what I love about farming and especially cover crops. It’s a journey, not a destination.
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