Growing Returns

Cover crops: a new opportunity for ag retailers

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

For the fourth year in a row, a nationwide farmer survey found a boost in soybean and corn yields following the planting of cover crops. That’s in part why cover crop usage increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012 among the farmers surveyed.

Cover crops are also great for the environment, since they help keep excess nutrients in the field and out of waterways. Yet only around 2 percent of all U.S. farmland uses cover crops, an alarmingly low figure.

That leaves a ton of room for improvement, which could result in huge environmental gains – and a new business opportunity for ag retailers.

Ag retailers that offer expertise on and sell cover crops to their famer customers can get in on this rapidly growing trend. And in so doing, gain customer loyalty and stand out from competitors. Read More »

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How cover crops can help growers beat droughts and floods

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Corn is trying to fight this summer’s extreme weather, and unfortunately, the weather is winning.

There are serious floods in the Midwest, devastating droughts in California, and brutal heat waves along the eastern seaboard. Ohio for example had a record June rainfall of 11 inches, which stunted corn roots and prevented many growers from planting any corn crops. In Northwest Ohio alone, 100,000 acres were left unplanted. At the same time, places in my home state of North Carolina experienced a June heat wave during the critical corn pollination period, significantly damaging corn yields.

These extreme weather events leave many farmers searching for ways to make the best of a challenging growing season. Although June’s weather was the opposite in Ohio and North Carolina, cover crops offer a proven solution to deal with both conditions. Read More »

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Cover crops nourish the soil through winter

Bees enjoy the buckwheat cover crop in the author’s kitchen garden.

Bees enjoy the buckwheat cover crop in the author’s kitchen garden.

The harvest season is ending, but for many growers concerned about the health of their soil, it is time to plant cover crops. I am not a farmer, but I wondered: if cover crops work for farmers, would they improve the soil in my North Carolina kitchen garden?

So late this summer I planted a buckwheat cover crop on half of my garden. I’ll be honest. My record as a gardener is spotty. This year we had a bounty of tomatoes and volunteer pumpkins, while nothing else thrived. A cover crop could improve my soil and my harvest next summer.

Cover crops offer big benefits

On farms, cover crops include grasses and grains such as cereal rye, legumes such as crimson clover, and broadleaf plants like radishes. They are not harvested like corn or soybeans. Instead, they are left in the field or incorporated into the soil.

Read More »

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3 ways the farm bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 farm bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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Birds, snakes and butterflies: Farming for more than crops and cash

Davis Ranch manager John Brennan pointed out a hundred year-old valley oak. Resting in the highest branches was a large nest about two feet wide, where a pair of hawks were nesting. As we dispersed about the ranch, one of the hawks greeted us by spreading its wings and soaring off into the blue sky.

A pair of Swainson’s hawk nest in a 100-year-old valley oak tree at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California. (Credit: Emily James)

The Golden State is well known for its robust and diverse agricultural output, even during times of drought. In 2014, California’s farms, ranches and nurseries turned out $54 billion worth of everything from oranges to rice, and milk to nuts.

Our farms and ranches are less renowned for the rich wildlife habitat they also provide, in some cases for threatened species like the Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, which have long struggled with the disappearance of their historic habitat in open grasslands and tule marshes.

The Swainson’s hawk population in California used to be close to 17,000 mating pairs. Today, that number is closer to 2,000. And the giant garter snake has faced the loss of 95 percent of its historic Central Valley wetland habitat. In both cases, landscape conversion and fragmentation, in addition to land management practices such as rodent control, have steadily worn away the suitable habitat for these species.

Fortunately, many species are adapting to these landscape changes and, with wildlife-friendly practices, are able to thrive on productive California farms and ranches. Farms like Davis Ranch. Read More »

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California takes giant step toward approving first crop-based carbon standards

CA rice farmA significant milestone was achieved today in the California cap-and-trade market. For the first time, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) considered a land-based carbon offset protocol that will allow U.S. rice growers to earn additional revenue for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation.

This is a big deal. U.S. agriculture has tremendous potential to not only provide the nation with the food we eat, but also the climate solutions we need to sustain our growth.

Farmers grow carbon credits

The protocol covers rice cultivation practices in both the Sacramento Valley of California and the Mississippi River Valley, which encompasses Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Growers here can implement any combination of three practices – dry seeding, early drainage or alternate wetting and drying – and collect data to be independently verified to create a carbon credit.

Nearly two dozen farmers have already expressed interest and are starting to gear up their operations to generate offsets in the spring of 2015. Read More »

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Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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A new guide for farmers to boost profits through conservation

As the struggling U.S. farm economy continues to make the news, agricultural organizations, government agencies and conservation groups are rightly focusing their attention on the affordability of conservation adoption.

A 2018 report from EDF and agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom, Farm Finance and Conservation, found that farmers who adopt conservation practices such as no-till, nutrient optimization, cover crops and diverse rotations improved their profitability and were more resilient.

Despite these benefits, the costs of transitioning to conservation management practices can be a barrier to adoption. In addition, any change carries some risk, and farmers are likely to be reluctant to take on additional risk in the current economic climate.

For these reasons, it is more important than ever to provide farmers with practical guidance on how to minimize the costs and risks of conservation adoption. Fortunately, a new technical bulletin from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture does just that.

Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops [PDF] describes seven different management scenarios in which farmers can speed their transition to cover crops and achieve profitability more quickly — in some cases within the first year of adoption. Read More »

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How conservation can enhance a farm’s financial health — even in challenging times

With the U.S.-China trade war and flooding in the Midwest continuing to make headlines, national attention is focused on the increasing economic challenges facing farmers and their families.

After years of weak commodity prices, these financial stresses are adding up. In the Corn Belt, farm bankruptcies are at the highest level in over a decade.

Given this challenging economic outlook, some might assume that farmers will abandon conservation efforts and focus exclusively on their finances. However, many of the financial best practices cited by farmers and encouraged by farm financial advisers are the very same principles that can help farmers continue to improve environmental outcomes. Here are four examples. Read More »

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Three ways to address increasing flood risk in the Midwest

Historic flooding across the Great Plains and Midwest has been devastating. While waters may be receding, farmers and communities aren’t out of the woods yet. Recovery will be costly and lengthy, and additional floods could be around the corner.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that more than 200 million Americans living in 25 states face elevated flood risk through May, and the risks go far beyond this year. The fourth National Climate Assessment predicts precipitation across the Midwest will increase in severity and frequency in the years ahead.

The region needs a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the dangers of excess water and increase the ability of working lands to withstand and recover from extreme precipitation. Contingency planning will be complex and constantly evolving, but it must do these three things to be successful. Read More »

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