Cover Cropping “Aventures” with Dad
Author: Andrew Wolfe, Conservation Coordinator at Palouse Conservation District
With funding from the Sustainable Farms and Fields program, farmers, through technical service providers, can experiment with climate-smart practices, like cover crops.
The Soil Did It
Just like his dad, my three-and-a-half-year-old boy loves the garden and all the things we grow in it. A favorite part of my job is the opportunity to put my boots in the fields of my home area and when I get to bring my boy Jack along for an “aventure,” as he would say.
This past summer, one of our “aventures” led us to the Palouse River, to the field of a producer who had planted a field a couple months earlier as a participant in the Sustainable Farms and Fields Program funded by the Washington State Conservation Commission. Jack graced me with his opinion: “Whoa Daddy, that’s a really big garden! I love the garden that you grew!” – the default assumption of this particular three-year-old is that Daddy built and grew everything in sight. I replied to the declaration: “Thanks buddy, but you know… I didn’t grow that, the soil did!” The boy was promptly, and visibly perplexed.
Jack’s “really big garden” was, in fact, a cover crop field in a dryland cereal grain cropping system. The cover cropwas a first not only for Jack, but also for the producer. The crop wasn’t going to yield grain. No, this crop’s bounty would be life — above and below ground. The practice is one the producer had wanted to try, for various reasons, for some time though the upfront labor and material costs like seed, fuel and time were barriers to entry year after year. Then, after receiving a Sustainable Farms and Fields award, the Palouse Conservation District put out the call for participants to join on the maiden voyage of the new program affording this and other producers the nudge needed to finally give cover cropping a go.
Cover Cropping Benefits
For this producer, the potential benefits ranged widely including:
- Fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere by including legumes in the mixture which can mitigate the input costs of fertilizer and the deleterious effects of soil acidification
- Feeding the microbes in the soil through root exudates
- Nutrient scavenging
- Increasing organic matter
- Disrupting disease cycles through crop rotation
- Weed suppression
- Reducing fuel costs
- Increasing return on investment
I ponder Jack’s soul-piercing insight… “Whoa, Daddy! That’s a really big garden!” Of course, in some very basic sense, he was right, though he was incorrect in his assessment of who, or what, grew it. Much like the boots and engines above the ground, the life below does some remarkably heavy lifting of its own consuming dead plant material, recycling plant essential nutrients, and making nutrients available to the plant and many other functions. Though for the better part of the last century, desiring to provide decent lives for ourselves and our families and equipped with the knowledge of the time, we have toiled to extinguish it either by the plow share, the rod weeder, or various herbicides. As anyone who has grown a garden or planted a crop knows, the soil will grow something before it grows nothing.
Finding Opportunities to Experiment
Folks often impose that cover cropping in dryland ag cannot work, lamenting that yield hits are too great and that cover crops cannot be grown consistently enough to work on hillsides, hilltops and clay nobs. Check out Andy Mcquire’s blog post from earlier this year outlining the challenges with water limitations and subsequent yield hits. Such refrains are common, and there are real challenges with cover cropping in dryland regions, especially in my home of the Palouse, with our challenging topography and variable annual precipitation ranging anywhere from about 12 to 20 inches. Yet I cannot help but wonder as I drive about the undulating and meandering roads of the Palouse and observe the conspicuously orange hues of any given clay nob from the road... “Maybe that clay nob shouldn’t be farmed,” and maybe the cover crop doesn’t belong there. Maybe no crop does. With funding from the Sustainable Farms and Fields program, farmers across the state are finding opportunities to experiment with what works and doesn’t work for themselves, embarking on “aventures” all their own in their pursuits to address soil health and climate resiliency.
If we know that the soil will grow something (even if we know that something is the unwanted Russian thistles and Kochia), the task, it seems, is to learn for each of our farms what that something is, or some things are, which grant the prospect of revitalizing life in our soils while affording the farmer a life of prosperity and dignity. For the record, I do not recommend Russian thistle or Kochia. For one farmer at least, the Sustainable Farms and Fields Program through Palouse Conservation District (funded by the Washington State Conservation Commission) aided in the discovery process of discerning what might and might not work, potentially sequestering carbon all the while
This discovery process will require reconsideration of many of the conventionally held norms and assumptions about our cropping systems: Is winter wheat the only profitable option for fall planting? Is there a wholly new, novel, or forgotten crop rotation that could help revitalize life in our soils? How, where, and when might cover cropping work? Can intercropping work? These and so many others are the questions we ought to be asking ourselves. With help from places like the Washington State Conservation Commission, one by one, farmers are assuming the challenge of answering these questions for themselves. I, for one, hope my “aventures” with Jack will include visits to lots more “really big gardens!” in the years to come.
To learn more about the Sustainable Farms and Fields Program or to find your local conservation district, visit the Washington State Conservation Commission Website.
Andrew is a Conservation Coordinator with the Palouse Conservation District. He also operates his family farm outside of Endicott, WA where they produce heirloom grains, providing him with a thorough understanding of conservation and agricultural practices in the Palouse.
This article was published by the Washington Soil Health Initiative. For more information, visit https://wasoilhealth.org. To have these posts delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to the WaSHI newsletter. To find a soil science technical service provider, visit the Washington State University Extension website or the Washington State Conservation District website.