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From the Field: Keeping Farms Green and Growing with Cover Crops

  • by
  • June 21, 2012
  • 7:30 pm
From the Field: Keeping Farms Green and Growing with Cover Crops
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by Sasha Lyutse, Policy Analyst, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)

Gabe Brown always covers up when he farms and he wants all his fellow farmers to do the same.

Gabe is a recipient of NRDC’s 2012 Growing Green Award in the Food Producer category and a powerful voice in a growing network of farmers, agronomists and advocates promoting ecologically integrated farming practices. Last week, I had the opportunity to hear him speak about an increasingly popular but still underutilized practice: cover cropping.

Traditional cover cropping refers to the planting of a second, non-commodity crop in coordination with a main crop to provide cover to fields that would otherwise be left bare much of the year, exposed to costly erosion and nutrient losses. Under this scenario, farmers grow cover crops not for sale, but to protect and improve soil health during the off-season.

But if Gabe’s management practices on his North Dakota ranch are any indication, there’s nothing traditional about the way leading farmers are cover cropping and building up their soils today; the space is rife with innovation.

Gabe is plainspoken, but when he talks about his soil, it is with a level of pride and passion that is plain old inspirational. Hearing Gabe tell his story is also an education in the possible: highly productive, highly profitable, ecologically-integrated farms whose soils are teeming with life and where chemical inputs are nearly absent.

What Gabe describes is a fundamental change in philosophy when it comes to farming. Monoculture, he says, is “man trying to force his will on nature.” What farmers need, Gabe says, is not to patch up problems one by one, but to solve problems holistically and in concert with nature. With that frame of mind, dozens of different cover crops, zero tillage, crop and livestock diversity, and high density mob grazing practices are not ends in themselves, but simply tools he uses to regenerate his soils.

There’s also a bottom line to building soil health with a diversity of plants and animals: an immense reduction in the inputs used to sustain monocultures: tillage, nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides, without sacrificing yield in cash crops. Today, Gabe uses zero commercial fertilizer on his farm and very few other chemical inputs. Indeed, he saves so much on input costs that his profits exceed $5 dollars for every bushel of corn he grows. All of this while managing a smaller farm that he says gives him and his family greater security and quality of life.

All of this got me thinking. Not many people are closer to the impacts of climate change than farmers, who are witnessing more intense rain events, changing growing seasons, and greater erosion. More and more, they are seeing that these changes in climate are not being addressed by the current system. Against this backdrop, soil health is emerging as the keystone of an agriculture system that is more resilient to extreme weather events—a new paradigm that goes far beyond just calculating soil loss. Single practices like no till, implemented in isolation, are no longer cutting it. Farmers (and their advisors) are increasingly advancing a systems-based approach that ties together no till, cover cropping and other holistic management practices.

So what will it take for everyone to farm like Gabe?

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43 comments

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4:44AM PDT on Jul 17, 2012

Wine! A vital ingredient for the relief of stress experienced in today’s modern version of everyday life but just as it was in the long bygone eras of human civilisations it is never enough to rectify our dis-ease with our situation!

2:09PM PDT on Jul 14, 2012

I live in the heart of wine country in NorthernCalifornia. I have live here all my life,growing up there where many dairy farms and farms hat grew vegtables.Now I am 59 and the farms have been replaced by grapes! Where there was acres of arm land as far as ou could see,now rows and rows of wne grapes. It is so sad to see th American Farmer relaced by wine grapes! More money to e made by keeping the nation supplied with wine that it is to supply the nation with food

4:56PM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

thanks

4:54PM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

thanks

2:38PM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

ty

10:59AM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

thanks for sharing.

9:36AM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

thanks

9:33AM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

Thank you,,,,

7:55AM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

thanks

5:16PM PDT on Jun 25, 2012

Great article. Thanks.

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