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Cover crops deliver big bang for the buck


Midwest regional director, American Farmland Trust


Illinois is blessed with the black gold that feeds America: rich, deep soils that make it one of the highest producing regions in the world. Agriculture is the largest economic sector in the state, and Illinois is among the top producers of corn and soybeans in the nation. My family has been part of this proud farming tradition for five generations.

Unfortunately, despite the stewardship of dedicated farmers, erosion is steadily taking its toll on this irreplaceable resource. We’ve lost about half of the organic matter that we had when we started plowing.

But there’s a proven way to prevent erosion, improve water quality, boost productivity and help farmers stay on the land — a practice that has gained widespread attention lately for its ability to draw carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.

You might be expecting something high tech, but this winning strategy is the age-old farming practice of planting cover crops.

Farmers use cover crops between growing seasons to hold the soil in place and prevent excess nutrients from entering waterways. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy estimates that planting cover crops can reduce nutrient losses from croplands by at least 30 percent, which would go a long way to preventing toxic algae blooms in local lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Plus, cover crops save farmers time and money on fertilizers and herbicides. Healthier soils are also more resistant to disturbances like pest outbreaks, disease or extreme weather events.

There are climate benefits as well. Planting cover crops, along with other conservation agriculture practices, has the potential to reduce emissions and sequester millions of metric tons of harmful greenhouse gases in soils. These practices can dramatically cut the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas footprint.

But as of 2019, cover crops were grown on less than six percent of Illinois cropland.

So why don’t more farmers do it? Farming is a business with a lot of overhead and small margins. It’s risky to change the way you operate, and it takes a few years to see the payoff. Farmers think of cover crops just like any other farm input. At the end of the day, I make management decisions to improve the profitability of my farming operation. If I don’t, there won’t be any sixth- or seventh-generation Reynolds farming in Montgomery County.

That’s why the Illinois Department of Agriculture launched the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Cover Crop Premium Discount Program in 2019. The idea was simple: Offer a $5 crop insurance discount for every acre planted in cover crops.

It’s working. The Illinois farmland using cover crops has doubled since 2018, to around 1.4 million acres. Now the problem is that we can’t keep up. We are turning away almost four times the number of acres as the program has capacity to enroll.

If we want to meet the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy’s water quality and soil health goals, now is the time to scale up the Fall Covers program. As lawmakers sit down to make budget decisions over the next few weeks, they should consider increasing the Fall Covers for Spring Savings program to be available for at least 200,000 acres in Illinois.

Other states are excited about the idea of a good stewardship incentive. Iowa started a similar cover crop program before Illinois, and a number of other states, like Wisconsin and Indiana, have plans in the works. We could even see this in the next federal Farm Bill. Farming practices that benefit the soil, water, climate and taxpayer dollars enjoy rare bipartisan support in Washington. With Federal Farm Bill support, a crop insurance incentive program can become a driver of an exponential increase of conservation practices on farms nationally, helping the Biden administration achieve its goal for a net-zero economy by 2050.

Illinois’ success can be everyone’s opportunity.

Kris Reynolds is American Farmland Trust’s Midwest regional director and leads and oversees key projects and programs, including the Upper Macoupin Creek Watershed Partnership and the Vermillion Headwaters Watershed Partnership in Illinois, where he coordinates activities with farmers and landowners that improve water quality, improve soil health,enhance nutrient efficiency, utilize conservation cropping systems, and meet the goals of Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

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