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More Midwest farmers are planting 'cover crops' in the off-season to help the climate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Farmers usually plant in the spring and harvest in fall. Now more are beginning to plant crops that cover the ground in the offseason instead of leaving fields empty. These are known as cover crops. And efforts are underway to get more farmers to adopt the practice. Jonathan Ahl of St. Louis Public Radio explains how they're used and how they can help farmers and the climate.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Tim Gottman's 2,400 acre farm in northeast Missouri looks harvested, but among the remnants of corn stalks are blobs of green plants that are thriving despite the cold and windy conditions of early spring in the Midwest. Gottman points to acres of gently sloping land wet from a recent rain.

TIM GOTTMAN: So all this water would be running that way, and if them terraces weren't there and this green, the wheat and rye weren't here, it would just allow the water to run faster and take the soil with it. And when the soil is leaving, your fertilizer is going with it.

AHL: Gottman is a big fan of the offseason plants, and he says they're working to improve the bottom line on his corn and soybean farm. He's not alone. The University of Illinois completed a study using a combination of USDA reports and satellite images to produce the most accurate survey of cover crop usage in the Midwest. The study found in the past 10 years, the number of acres using the practice tripled. But it comes with a big caveat.

JONATHAN COPPESS: It is certainly not at a level that would be necessary for some of the challenges, like the water quality challenges, like soil erosion. It's going to take a lot more acres to get there.

AHL: Jonathan Coppess is the director of the University of Illinois' Ag Policy Program. He says the new data shows the cover crop usage went from 1.8% to 7.2% - a big jump but still a small number of acres. Coppess says he hopes there will be more incentives for them put into the farm bill that's up for renewal this year. He says there could be more bipartisan support for a program that can help reduce fertilizer costs and work to address climate change because cover crops can also help take carbon out of the atmosphere.

COPPESS: We can use it maybe to design up policies that will help incentivize the behavior, help incentivize the practice. It can maybe help jumpstart that by showing, you know, funds going in for this practice will get response on the ground, and we can measure it.

AHL: The offseason planting strategy is also getting endorsements from large agriculture groups, including the National Corn and Soybean Growers Associations. Kurt Boeckmann is the director of environmental programs for Missouri Corn. He says there has been a lot of progress, but there needs to be more. But he also says it's important to farmers to be encouraged and not forced.

KURT BOECKMANN: Really, just want to make sure that it's voluntary. We don't want to mandate anything. We don't want farmers to be forced into planting cover crops on their acres. We want them to make those decisions. They know their land better than anyone.

AHL: Sixty-five percent of Tim Gottman's farmland has cover crops on it, but he understands why more farmers don't plant them. He says large corporate-owned farms don't want to put in the time or effort to take care of the land.

GOTTMAN: Because you got plants out there growing on you on a field that you're wanting to plant, and it's three counties away, and rain's coming. You're not heading to spray over there. They just want the dirt because they're not really farming for maybe the same reason I am.

AHL: The current farm bill expires in September, and incentives for cover crops will be a tiny sliver of what looks to be a more than a half-a-trillion-dollar package. But there will be countless programs and initiatives competing for those dollars.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl, in Rolla, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonathan Ahl
Jonathan Ahl reports from the Rolla Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. His duties also include covering central and southern Missouri for Harvest Public Media. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in November of 2018, Jonathan was the General Manager for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois. He previously was the News Director at Iowa Public Radio and before that at WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Jonathan has also held reporting positions in central Illinois for public radio stations. Jonathan is originally from the Chicago area. He has a B.A. in Music Theory and Composition from Western Illinois University and an M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is an avid long distance runner, semi-professional saxophonist and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.
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