Research shows cover crops reduces farm run-off that pollutes waterways

Farmers who plant millions of acres of corn and soybeans can help protect sources of drinking water in the off-season by planting cover crops such as rye and oats to absorb chemical run-off from barren fields that pollute our waterways.

Make no mistake, we need farm country to feed ourselves. Farmers across the country do a good job of keeping America’s food supply well-stocked. But they could help take care of our vulnerable water resources, too.

After harvesting their corn and soybeans, some farmers leave their fields barren until the next year, which means there’s nothing preventing rain from washing fertilizer chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus into nearby drinking water sources, not to mention erosion.

While plants love nitrogen and phosphorus, those chemicals are not desired in the water we drink.

However, new research proves that planting cover crops during the off-season can solve these pressing issues as well as helping farmers use less chemicals the next year and help them through disasters such as drought and flooding.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG):

These are off-season crops, such as cold season grasses and legumes, that absorb nitrogen and phosphorus and preserve precious soil. Done right, cover crops make farming more sustainable in the face of flooding and drought, conditions that climate change is making more frequent, severe and volatile.

EWG investigated the use of cover crops in three states in the Midwest and determined that while some Illinois, Iowa and Indiana farmers are increasingly planting cover crops, it’s not enough.

“In Illinois, cover crops increased from approximately 489,000 acres to 760,000 acres,” the site said. “In Indiana, from 795,000 acres to 878,000 acres. In Iowa, from 592,000 acres to 907,000 acres.”

“Even with the increase, acres protected by cover crops remain a tiny percentage of row crop acres in these three states,” EWG warned. “In Illinois only 3.6 percent of all corn and soybean acres were protected by cover crops, in Indiana 7.8 percent and in Iowa 3.9 percent.”

That means farm chemicals are still contaminating drinking water sources in many parts of these states and others as well. After all, these states are not the only farming states in America.

But EWG has a solution to encourage farmers to put in the extra work for themselves and our water resources.

Like traditional farm subsidies that encourage the production of commodities, cover crops require an incentive for most farmers if they are to plant them and technical help if they are to learn how to manage them. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, authorize financial assistance for farmers planting cover crops at around $34 an acre. However, many federal conservation programs in the Farm Bill are chronically underfunded and constantly targeted for cuts.

Now, this would mean Congress would have to cooperate and President Donald Trump would have to sign a bill into law. But if lawmakers from both sides of the aisle really care about the plight of our farmers and want to protect our water resources at the same time, this is a worthy action to take.

We need food to eat, but we also depend on fresh clean water. Without it, we wouldn’t live to eat the food produced by our farmers. Planting cover crops is a great idea and Congress should chip in to make it happen. Our farmers have certainly earned the help.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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