A Busy Person’s Intro to Cover Crops

Part 2 of our “Advanced Farming Opportunities” Series with Bill Brandon

By Bill Brandon

The big news is that the Ecological Systems Market Consortium was formalized in January 2020.  This is not a government program, it is a non-profit supported by major agriculture and food companies from Cargill to McDonald’s. 4

Their first area of focus will be cover crops for the Midwest.  They are targeting a value of $15/ton of CO2e sequestration in soils plus other sustainable objectives such as reduced soil erosion, preventing fertilizer pollution into waterways and building soil nitrogen and nutrients.  There will be a variety of practices that contribute to the ultimate value of an offset credit. The farmer should view this program as an opportunity to do the right thing while making money and/or reducing costs by doing it.

Objectives of cover crops  

There are five basic reasons for using cover crops. 

  • Prevent soil and nutrient erosion
  • Produce a marketable crop
  • Add nutrients to the soil
  • Maintain a good soil microbial ecology
  • Sequester CO2 and reduce Nox (a powerful greenhouse gas) and CO2 emissions from the soil

It has been pretty well established that a cover crop with roots does a better job in preventing erosion than loose surface material.  Planting a cover crop costs money and it is reasonable to look for a return on this investment. There is always a long-term return in healthy soil, but financial decisions must often be made on a year-to-year basis.

There are also cash advantages for cover crops.  Adding nutrients to the soil for the next growing season is a reduction of future expenses.  If this is your objective, red clover is hard to beat as a cover crop. It has a large amount of protein in its leaves, which is the source of nitrogen returned to the soil.  If a marketable product is your objective, an oil seed crop like any variation of pennycress is a good choice for the upper latitudes (generally above 35 degrees). It can be sold as a high value fodder for animals or the seeds can be sold to a processor, most likely a biodiesel refiner.

Another option will be selling ecological or carbon credits into the new market being set up.  This option will be discussed further in our next installment.

Why Do We Grow What We Grow

By Bill Brandon

The answer is probably just TRADITION!  Tradition is founded on some practical foundation and wrapped in social and economic ties and laws, etc.  It is hard to break from tradition. Cost is associated with such a change.  

Farming is based on change though. When our ancestors started farming, it changed society. Most people would say for the better. They raised their basic foodstuffs of grains, fruits, and vegetables.  As our society advanced, we added domesticated animals, which sometimes added to our harvest demand, as we grew feed for them. Farming rooted itself in progress and advancement taking over several core industries for centuries.

By the 19th century in America, farming was a backbone industry for daily life’s many needs.  They provided food, of course, for themselves and those working in cities and factories.  They were also the core providers of horses and mules, the powerful farm machines and transportation vehicles of that time. These same machines helped create their own fuel with the roughage and grains used to feed them throughout their day of labor.  Food, transportation, and fuel were the sources of income a farmer could count on.

This changed with the introduction of the internal combustion engine and the development of the oil industry. Farmers adopted tractors, and instead of raising and selling ‘fuel’ they now bought it from oil companies.  The importance of the farmer started to decline in America. While the country roared in the 20’s, the farmer just held on. By the end of WWI, farmers had pretty much completely lost the transportation and ‘fuel’ market. Now they were highly reliant on a commodities market.

Today, many farmers are tied to this format. They are stuck between corporate input suppliers and corporate commodity buyers. These buyers, in turn, distribute low cost products in the form of processed foods and animal feed.  This format has drained rural farm communities of their wealth and a connection to their own community’s needs. While some brag about American agriculture ‘feeding the world’, rural food deserts are common with lack of access to healthy food options.  

Those who are concerned about poor Americans diets leading to  chronic health issues often chastise farmers for ‘farming the subsidies’.  This is a simplified criticizing concept of the problems of farmers and rural economies. However, many, including farmers, feel we need to pivot the Nation’s farm format and structure.

Farming is a critical industry in any country and deserves special support to keep it healthy and productive.  The question is to what end. What factors of agriculture deserve support? Which ones serve the nation and food consumers on the whole and not only corporate food processors and input suppliers? 

The EPA has estimated that in 2017 the agriculture economic sector (including farms and supporting business) accounted for 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.*  Others say this is actually 37% because some areas are undercounted. Undercounted may be partially true because, for example, the production of fertilizers, which releases significant CO2, is included in the ‘Industrial sector’.

Critics are not completely negative about agriculture’s ability to become more sustainable. Peter Lehner, who authored the “Agriculture” chapter of “Legal Pathways To Deep Decarbonization In The United States, stated “The good news is we can actually reach carbon neutral agriculture pretty soon, and we can reach it in a way that is profitable for the farmers and for the communities they live in.”**

Some believe that farms can even become carbon negative, sequestering more CO2e than they release. At the same time, they can once more supply local fresh produce year round without relying on food from distant growers.  It will, however, require a pivot from business as usual.  

To advance this goal, we are running a series of blogs looking at factors that might advance this pivot and return more industries like energy back to rural farm communities. 

*source https://www.fb.org/market-intel/agriculture-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions 

** https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/12/02/5-reasons-agricultures-greenhouse-gas-emissions-are-usually-underestimated/#263c7ca06ac8