Cover Crops: The "LBD" of Conservation
It’s hard to keep up with changing trends. The phone that was cutting-edge nine months ago is now obsolete. The jeans you bought last year are just that… so last year.
So we appreciate things in life deemed timeless. For some, it’s that “little black dress” in their closet; for others, it’s painting their walls a neutral color. For many Washington farmers, their timeless classic is the cover crop.
WHAT'S A COVER CROP?
Cover crops refer to crops planted in areas that otherwise would be bare ground, such as in spaces between rows of cash crops or over entire fields between the time a cash crop is harvested and the next one is planted. Plants used as cover crops vary, but some examples of those grown in Washington include rye, vetch, clover, buckwheat, and mustard seed.
Cover crops are important because they keep soil in place. When you picture images from the Dust Bowl, some of what you see darkening the air is valuable soil that’s blown off of farm fields. Farms are more vulnerable to soil loss when fields are bare. Wind, rain, and snowmelt can easily whisk away bare soil. But when a farmer plants a cover crop, the plant canopy and roots keep the soil in place. Cover crops provide other benefits, too, including decreasing pollution, improving rain infiltration, controlling weeds, and creating a habitat for vital microorganisms.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Earlier this year, Deputy Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation at USDA, Gloria Montaño Greene, referred to cover crops as “playing a starring role in climate mitigation” due to their ability to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide into soils. There’s growing support for the climate-related and other benefits they provide, but cover crops still mean extra time, labor, and costs for farmers upfront. Farmers sacrifice vital resources to plant them.
That’s why conservation districts, state and federal agencies, and others are trying to make cover crops easier and more affordable. For example, this summer, the Washington State Conservation Commission launched the Sustainable Farms and Fields program that includes funding and assistance for farmers who plant cover crops. Through Washington’s Soil Health Initiative, researchers and potato growers are exploring cover crop strategies that not only improve soil health but also maximize yields.
The future looks strong for cover crops—a conservation practice that just keeps getting better with time.