No one needs to sell Rob Woodrow on the value of “cover crops” in farming.
Woodrow, a professional farm manager for landowners in the Springfield area and throughout Illinois, said planting non-cash crops such as rye and clover in the fall after harvest helps soil retain moisture and nutrients, controls weeds and reduces erosion for the next growing season.
The benefit of cover crops during the following spring and summer may be seen through less herbicide that needs to be applied on the same fields, and an increase in per-acre yields for corn and soybeans, according to Woodrow, who is based at Farmland Solutions in Sherman.
“Cover crops aren’t a cost,” he said. “They are a benefit.”
An effort is underway in the Capitol to expand funding for a state program that gives farmers financial incentives to plant cover crops.
With state budget negotiations raging as the General Assembly races toward the end of its regular spring session Monday, soil-conservation advocates said the initiative is important, and not just for farmers, but for everyday consumers and taxpayers, as well.
Cover crops help preserve Illinois’ fertile soil, and the organic matter essential to the quality of the soil has been reduced by half over the past 180 years because of erosion, advocates said.
“That’s a huge loss in terms of an agricultural resource that has been able to provide for a healthy and vibrant agricultural economy in the state for generations,” said Maxwell Webster, Midwest policy manager of the American Farmland Trust, an agricultural conservation organization.
In a state where agriculture is the No. 1 business and contributes more than $8.8 billion to the state’s economy annually, cover crops are planted on only 5% of the state’s 24 million acres of cropland.
The state’s 2-year-old Fall Covers for Spring Savings program can inspire farmers to adopt the practice throughout the state and reduce the runoff of soil and farm-related chemicals into lakes, streams and rivers, Webster said.
Reduced runoff saves money on water treatment and reduces the need for increases in local water rates, he said.
Fewer nutrients released from farm fields into water supplies also lead to better conditions for fish and promote the fishing-related economy in the Midwest and in the Gulf of Mexico because fewer chemicals make their way south in the Mississippi River, Webster said.
Also in need of preservation and expansion is Illinois’ $14 million-a-year series of land-conservation initiatives known as the Partners For Conservation Program, he said.
Those programs, including grants that support soil and water conservation districts throughout the state, are scheduled to expire July 1, Webster said.
“We need to make sure these kinds of programs are there and are dependable year after year,” he said.
The Partners for Conservation Program passed the legislature in 1996 without a dissenting vote and was intended to provide $100 million for conservation efforts over the next six years, but the funding expansion didn’t happen, Webster said.
He said Illinois’ chronic budget problems have hindered the state’s plan, adopted in 2015, to reduce the loss of nutrients applied to the soil to grow cash crops but lost through erosion.
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy set goals to reduce total phosphorus and nitrogen losses to Illinois waterways by 45%. The interim goal was reducing nitrate and nitrogen losses by 15% and total phosphorus by 25% by 2025.
“We’re way off pace with the directions that those initial programs established in terms of supporting stewardship practice across the state and protecting clean water and healthy soils,” Webster said.
Identical bills in the House and Senate to establish the Illinois Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act would renew the Partners for Conservation Program for five years, incorporate the cover-crops program, and focus state efforts on reducing the soil nutrient loss.
Annual funding for the program would increase from $14 million to $27 million in five years and attract millions more in federal land conservation dollars and other philanthropic and corporate support, Webster said.
However, those bills haven’t progressed in the legislature. At this point, advocates hope to at least preserve, and potentially expand, the Partners for Conservation Program and the cover-crop program for the next fiscal year by inserting lines in the state budget for fiscal 2022.
Webster said the cover-crops program, funded with $300,000 in general revenue fund money in the current and previous fiscal year, was “wildly popular.”
The program offered farmers who planted cover crops the opportunity to have their federal crop insurance reduced by $5 per acre for the next cash-crop planting season.
That discount, while not covering all the costs for cover crops, may cover half to all of the cost of crop insurance, Webster said.
But the $300,000 in state funding allowed crop-insurance subsidies for only 50,000 acres each year.
In 2020 and 2021, the total acreages requested by farmers for the program was more than double the acres allowed. There was an unmet demand of more than 135,000 acres in 2021, according to American Farmland Trust.
Advocates want to see funding for the cover-crops program increase to $1 million annually for and subsidize crop insurance for 200,000 acres.
“It’s a drop in the bucket for the state budget,” said Kris Reynolds, a Montgomery County farmer who is Midwest regional director for American Farmland Trust. “It’s one of the best investments we can make.”
Grant Hammer, executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said, “Cover crops help hold soil in place, and that soil that’s held in place obviously stays out of the interconnected ditches and streams that form what are called watersheds. So it helps with things like flooding and keeps contaminants out of waterways.”
The financial benefits from cover crops sometimes can’t be seen immediately, but research supports the long-term benefit, Webster said.
Incentives are needed to help justify the additional time and up-front costs farmers must make and convince the broader population of farmers that cover crops are worth it, he said.
Any challenge is that 60% of Illinois farmland is rented. Renters sometimes are less focused than land owners on the long term, Reynolds said.
Many Midwestern states are trying to expand the use of cover crops. Illinois’ program is modeled after a program in Iowa, Webster said. A pilot program is being developed in Indiana, and there are efforts to develop a similar program in Wisconsin, he said.
In addition to improving water quality, cover crops help make agricultural land “more resilient to changing climate” such as more frequent droughts and flooding, Hammer said.
Average citizens may be skeptical about the need to expand the use of cover crops when Illinois’ corn and soybean yields frequently set records, Webster said. But technological advances in seeds and fertilizer eventually may be offset, he said.
“We’re having good things happen,” he said, “but as soil losses increase over time, we’re afraid that those will then act negatively against those record yields and other things we’re seeing to have a detrimental impact.
Hammer added: “Farmers want to be good stewards, and they’ve had a vested interest in maintaining their land. … There’s widespread support for cover crops as a multifaceted solution for climate issues and water-quality issues throughout the state.”
Contact Dean Olsen: firstname.lastname@example.org; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.
via The State Journal-Register
May 28, 2021 at 05:43AM