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Cover Crops and Diversity – Need More Proof They Work? Hard to believe it could come from a few conventional farmers!

It’s interesting that conventional agriculture is so far off the mark when the “real” information needed to prosper and produce good crops is available if it’s looked for.

The problem of course is that most farmers get their information from each other, or they go to the feed trough of information from the chemical industry which is widely promoted and easily available.

And information coming from the chemical industry is all about making money regardless of what the outcome is to the farmer, the consumer, or the earth.

Good Information Is Still Out There, Although It May Not be Labeled as Such

Surprisingly, even the United States Department of Agriculture, that seems to be in the pocket of biotech companies, has resources available to farmers to show them the “other way.” But not surprisingly, when they do provide these resources, they post notice at the end saying: “The opinions expressed in this video are those of the farmers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the USDA.” (After all, they wouldn’t want to get on the outs with the biotech/chemical companies.)

Another way they (USDA) provide “good info” is through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, another federal agency. They (NRCS) have conservationists whose purpose is to provide technical expertise and help with conservation planning for farmers, ranches and forest landowners if the want it.

They’re Careful Not to Make Waves (Isn’t “politically correct” a term for that?)

If you do a little “looking around” the internet you’ll find (again, not surprisingly) that these conservationists who teach soil health (and principles of something they refer to as “agroecology”) are careful not to make waves with the biotech/chemical industry.

As one lengthy definition of agroecology (a word that came into being in the 1970s) stated, “… agroecology does not

  • systematically embrace organics,
  • reject monoculture, or
  • take a single particular stance on synthetic chemicals or technologies.”

From that, I gather that they don’t take a stand on wrong principles, they just offer good principles when folks will listen.

The Typical Response from Farmers

Most conventional farmers view soil health as an abstract virtue. In other words, it’s not a concrete proven principle to them. It’s more of a theory or an idea, rather than something that can really work for them and make a difference in their bottom line (profit).

So you can imagine what response some of these NRCS conservationists get when they start talking to conventional farmers about soil health and how working with nature will improve the health of their soil and increase their bottom line.

Even the farmers who eventually ended up making changes will readily admit that their first thought when they first started listening was “This soil scientist fellow is crazy!”

Under Cover Farmers

Pat, a friend and reader in Tennessee, recently sent me the link to a video (entitled Under Cover Farmers) about several conventional farmers in North Carolina who ended up really listening and taking the information on soil health to heart. It dramatically changed the way they farmed and radically reduced their dependence on chemicals.

They’re far from being organic.  They still use herbicides that harm soil life. In spite of that, they’ve increased their production and profit by practicing some of nature’s principles. They don’t yet know it’s possible to stop using chemicals, but at least they are acting on what they do know.

How the Change Came About

When these farmers heard one of the soil scientist of the NRCS talk about limiting disturbance of the soil (no-till) and keeping the soil covered at all times with a wide range of cover crops (diversity, diversity, diversity), they didn’t just “listen” and change. The change came when they heard “real” farmers singing the praises of this way and saw the results first hand.

The soil science fellow from NRCS invited several North Carolina farmers to go out to North Dakota with him to see and meet farmers in that state who were farming with a great diversity of Cover Crops and no-till.  They accepted.

Farmers in North Dakota showed the North Carolina farmers fields of beautiful corn that had had no compost, no compost tea, and no commercial fertilizers. These stands of corn, that towered above the heads of the men, were producing a beautiful and abundant crop from the energy of a variety of cover crops that occupied the fields before the corn.

The NRCS District Conservationist told the men those fields were probably one of the best examples of the power of diversity that he could show them.  He stressed to them that the power of diversity is extremely strong and had they planted a monoculture (just one cover crop) in the field before the corn, the field would not look the same.  It would not be as lush and healthy. (These farmers plant 20 to 25 cover crops at a time in the same field!)

According to the NC farmers, this was their aha moment.

The Changes 3 Farmers Made Started a Small Revolution in Their Home County

By the time they were ready to leave for home, the NC farmers had only 3 weeks before time to plant cover crops.  One of them figured up what he needed before he left and called in the order before heading home.

These men were excited!  They figured if farmers in ND, with an annual rainfall of about 12 inches, could do this and get great results, they, in NC with an annual rainfall of about 40 inches, should certainly be able to do it. (All these farmers farm 100s of acres without irrigation.)

They laugh looking back and tell stories of how their neighbors thought they had lost their minds when they returned from ND as changed men. Everyone said they’d go bankrupt.  Now those same neighbors are coming to see what these men are doing.

Follow-ups as The Years Pass

In follow-ups with all these farmers, they reported much healthier crops and increased yields. Even in just their first year of change they reported a 10% yield improvement. Roots were bigger.  Earthworms were abundant.

They reported lower inputs (what farmers call fertilizers and herbicides). (Keep in mind they have not yet learned that they can farm profitably and better without these.) They do however, with each passing year, use less and less chemicals. Some are seeing that it IS possible to grow crops without any synthetic input.

What’s Your Take-Away from This Post?

I have written post after post on TMG that stress the same things that these NRCS soil biologists and/or scientists stress to these farmers and that the farmers saw first hand would bring excellent results.

  • Disturb the soil as little as possible.  (For the home gardener – permanent beds that don’t have to be tilled get that job done.)
  • Cover the soil at all times.  (Whenever you can, cover your soil with living plants.  The biomass and the roots of living plants is where your greatest benefit will come from.)
  • Diversify in EVERTHING! Have as much variety (diversity) in your garden (and borders) as possible. When you plant cover crops plant as many different ones as you can.  And plant them together.

Final Thoughts

Yes, this is going to take some planning, but the payoff is HUGE!  Even as much as I promote diversity on this website, I realize now I was still thinking small and didn’t know it.  But I want this big payoff in MY GARDEN and I’m willing to spend some time planning to get it.

I’ll also have to work at having more living plants in the soil whenever possible, rather than just have the soil covered with mulch.

It’ll take me some time.  One little step by one more little step, done consistently, will get me there.

We’ve just been given an even greater understanding of how to use diversity and cover crops in our gardens. I hope you will join me in planning to accomplish what’s necessary to reap the great harvest of benefits that can come from using these two great principles of nature: keep the soil covered and use as many varieties of plants as you can.

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Related Posts:

Organic on a Large Scale Does It Work?
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All content including photos are copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com.

12 comments to Cover Crops and Diversity – Need More Proof They Work? Hard to believe it could come from a few conventional farmers!

  • Twenty to twenty-five cover crops in the same field?! Sounds like maybe there was a purpose for all those “weeds” in a fallow fields between crops?

    Do they just mix the seed and sew it all together? plant in rows or strips?

    This is great, but I hope they go a step further and mow down those cover crops and let the tops feed the soil as well instead of spraying them with herbicide as they do here in Tennessee. They spray and kill everything so all that’s left is a dead, brown field. Ugly. After a few days/weeks, they plant their main crop. Those chemicals kill the plants, but also coat and sicken or kill any insects and pollinators that are on them at the time of planting. I know, I lost 2/3s of my bees this way last year.

  • Clark Center

    Just read Cover Crops and Diversity — Need More Proof and I’m grinning from ear to ear. Farmers are and always have been practical, and they’re always interested in what works. In our little East Tennessee newpaper there’s a weekly agricultural section, and there’s often a story on improved pasturing, cover crops (though not this kitchen sink approach), etc. Thanks for sharing this. It made my day.

  • Mary

    My county’s agricultural land is primarily family farmed even if some of those farms are 1000’s of acres. A few of these farmers have had excellent results from using oilseed radishes as overwintering cover crops. Here is an excellent resource for information on sustainable agriculture (www.NCAT.org) which I find useful in my home garden as well. Also, I would recommend the book “Managing Cover Crops Profitably”, ISBN 1-888626-04-6. This gives a good overview of a variety of cover crops. Each year, I strive to include cover crops in my garden plan. They not only improve and protect the soil, but are also important in providing habitat for beneficial insects especially pollinators. Thanks for the information you have provided.
    Mary Yahnke, Will County, Illinois

  • Pat

    Theresa, I appreciate your synopsis of the video. I look forward to hearing about the steps you are taking to further diversify in your own garden. I am struggling with that myself. I do have a plan to grow white clover between beds of corn this year because it can be mowed and the clippings tossed onto the beds. What other summer cover crop can be mowed?!? (There have to be “paths” between the beds!)

    Keep us updated!
    😀

  • Thanks for the video link. It was really fascinating. My daughter Megan is in charge of the vegetable garden this year, and she is so excited to start implementing all the things she has learned from your blog!

  • Theresa

    Betty, they mix the seed and sow it together over the entire field. And hopefully they will learn that the herbicides are not necessary.

    Clark, glad you enjoyed the post. As practical and “interested in what works” as farmers may be, many are so brainwashed by the propaganda put out by the chemical/big ag industries that they never know what works and what doesn’t – since all they know is what they’re told by the industry and other farmers. Glad to hear that in your area of Tennessee the newspaper there has a section on better ways to approach things.

    Mary, thanks for the resource information. And for pointing out that covers also provide habitat for beneficials.

    Pat, using covers to our best advantage is something we all have to work on. I’m sure there will always be something we can do to add to the benefit received.

    Many covers can be cut or mowed if that’s what’s desired. Even grains will keep growing after you cut them early. You’d have to weigh out cost and probably have to try something to make sure it’s what you want. Eventually the grain would die out, but the roots would remain for a while in the paths. Just have to think it all out. Clover is such an excellent one for paths (at least until we experience something better. 🙂 )

    Diane, I’m so pleased you were interested enough to watch the video. I found it fascinating as well.
    Tell Megan, that her excitement makes me want to write even more!

    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    This video is outstanding. I hope to learn more as I go. I am only a 2nd year gardener. I have a question about brussel sprouts,cabbage and broccoli. I am already finding green worms on these plants, outside of killing by hand, what is the organic way to kill the worms?
    Thanks
    Steve

  • Theresa

    Steve, I’m sure you have guessed there is not one way that will totally get rid of the problem. (Except for super healthy soil.)
    Until then a combination of ways is your best bet.

    I think what probably works THE BEST from what I hear other gardeners say is covering the bed of those crops with row cover fabric (the thin kind). A lot of gardeners have used tulle – which is a thin fabric like that that would be used to make a bridal veil or curtains. You can find those curtains in second hand stores sometimes for next to nothing. After you get the fabric, you could put hoops up or anything that would hold the fabric up and then fasten it securely at the ends and around the sides by putting soil and stones on top of that. (Whatever works. Lots of ways.) Of course, this might have to be your plan for next year since you already have the crops and the worms growing.

    Bt (sold as Dipel) is good as a dust or you can mix the powder with water and spray. Whatever you don’t use will last indefinitely when stored properly. May sure you spray on the underside of leaves too if this is your choice. (Johnnys Select Seed sells it.)

    Hand picking is helpful as you know. Beneficial insects help. And then of course what really will do the job without a lot of our fuss and muss is making our soil so super healthy that the pest insects are not attracted to our plants to begin with. It might take us some time to accomplish that goal but that’s what I’m working toward, as I feel sure you are too Steve.
    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    As always you are the best, quick to respond and several options. I am not sure what I will do except to keep the worms picked by hand and to use fish fertilizer for growth. I surely want healthy soil which is why I have put at least 10 inches of wood chips on top of the ground, then waiting for the wood chips to totally decompose. The advocate of this method states after 4-5 years I will get optimum performance. I will just need some patience to see it to fruition. By the way nearly all of my potatoes came up from last years planting. May still get 100% growth from them yet. I have spotty performance with garlic though. The other plantings I have done look pretty well too. Thanks again, I would have to look far and wide to get the service you provide. You are the truly one of the best!
    Steve

  • Theresa

    Yes Steve, I agree that you would have to look far and wide to get the service I provide. You could find a similar service BUT you would have to pay for it. There is NO ONE that I know of that gives this kind of help for free. I’ve made it a point to “see” what’s out there so I know that TMG is one of a kind.

    I am happy to help people learn to garden. That is one of the reasons I wrote Organic Gardening – Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening. For $24.95 the reader gets 35 years worth of my experience rolled into one package. I don’t think you’ll find anything like the book out there either.

    In spite of the fact that I enjoy helping folks, I won’t always be able to do it for free. I will as long as I can, but somewhere along the line I have to be able to make a living with what I know.

    Theresa

  • Judy Denham

    Theresa
    I loved this article because I have read of the North Dakota farmers before. The whole story of how they developed their unique farming methods is in the book I mentioned to you earlier. It’s called The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson.

    And now you are teaching me how to use these principles on a home garden scale.

  • Theresa

    Thanks for letting me know you loved the post and that it helped you, Judy.
    Let me know how you apply the information.
    Best wishes for great success,
    Theresa

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