Farmers help clean up nation's rivers, lakes with cover crops

Published online: Oct 13, 2013
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Cover crops are one simple farming technique that can save money, produce better crops, clean rivers and estuaries, and address climate change.

Yet, a new report from National Wildlife Federation, Counting Cover Crops, finds that less than 2 percent of cropland in the highly-farmed Mississippi River Basin is planted to cover crops. How can the nation get more cover crops on the ground?

A second NWF report released, Clean Water Grows, provides six examples of water quality groups working with farmers to clean up rivers and streams using cover crops.

"Cover crops are a win-win-win for our nation's wildlife, waterways and farmers," said Lara Bryant, report co-author and Agriculture Program Coordinator for National Wildlife Federation. "This report provides a baseline for cover crop planting so that we can demonstrate what we believe will be an exponential increase in the coming decade."

Cover crops are non-commodity crops grown to protect soil in fallow fields, which also provide benefits to the public by improving water quality, air quality and wildlife habitat. If adopted on a large scale throughout the Mississippi River Basin (MRB), National Wildlife Federation believes cover crops could greatly improve the health of the Gulf of Mexico by keeping nutrients and sediments on farms and out of waterways. Cover crops could also help solve the worsening problem of toxic algae plaguing lakes, rivers, and streams across the nation.

Yet, the potential of cover crops in the Midwest is still largely untapped. Counting Cover Cropsreveals that despite the growing popularity and the many benefits provided by cover crops, only 1.8 million acres (less than 2% of total cropland) in the MRB are planted to cover crops.

The good news is that cover crop use is on the rise. Clean Water Grows profiles hard-working groups and individuals in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Maryland who are working cooperatively to increase cover crops in their watersheds.

For example, in the Miami River Watershed of Ohio, water treatment facilities are investing in a nutrient trading program that pays farmers to install cover crops and other beneficial practices that reduce the amount of phosphorus running off of agricultural land.  This has resulted in measurably cleaner streams and lower costs for downstream utilities and consumers.

"Together, these reports show us both the reality and the ideal for cover crops," said Bryant. "The reality is that only a small percentage of acres are planted to cover crops. The ideal, however, shows that where they are being used, cover crops are producing undeniable positive results for farmers, water quality and wildlife. We hope these reports provide examples that many other local water quality groups will follow."