U.S. growers expand cover crops, envision low-carbon future

Barley and radishes will not be used for food, but Bayer AG will pay McCormick for planting them, as the so-called cover crops will generate carbon offset credits for the seed and chemicals maker, Reuters reported.

The goal of cover crops is to restore soils, reduce erosion, and remove carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Carbon trapped in roots and other plant material left in the soil is measured to create carbon credits that companies can use to offset other pollution.

Practice shows how the agricultural industry adapts due to climate change. Farmers no longer make money just selling crops for food and feed – they can also be paid for the role crops can play in limiting global warming emissions.

More and more American farmers are planting cover crops, from grasses like rye and oats to legumes and radishes. While some are converted to biofuel or fed to livestock, most are not harvested because their value is greater if they decompose in the soil.

Cover crops are a mainstay of regenerative agriculture, and they are generally viewed by environmentalists as an improvement over traditional agriculture. It is an approach to agriculture that aims to restore soil health and reduce emissions through crop rotation, livestock grazing, cutting of chemical inputs and other practices.

Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri, estimates that cover crop plantings increased to 22 million acres in 2021. That’s a 43% increase from the 15, 4 million acres planted in 2017, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“There are so many things that move cover crops forward. The most recent thing is carbon payments. We have seen a huge interest from farmers in soil health, ”he said.

Myers estimates that by the end of the decade, between 40 million and 50 million acres of cover crops will be planted each year.

The push will likely accelerate as government and private conservation programs expand, experts say.

An even larger expansion in cover crop area in the coming years could be a boon to seed and fertilizer companies, although the companies say it’s difficult to predict which cover crops farmers will decide. to plant.

Companies such as Bayer, Land O’Lakes and Cargill Inc have launched carbon cultivation programs over the past two years that pay growers for capturing carbon by planting cover crops and reducing tillage.

Land O’Lakes subsidiary Truterra paid $ 4 million to U.S. farmers enrolled in its carbon program in 2021 for efforts that the company says trapped 200,000 metric tonnes of carbon in the soil.

Others are growing from small pilot programs, including Cargill, which aims to increase its sponsored sustainable agriculture programs to 10 million acres by the end of the decade, from around 360,000 acres today. Seedmaker Corteva Inc has increased its carbon supply from three US states to 11 for the 2022 season.

Federal conservation programs have for years paid farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land such as floodplains or wildlife habitat, and the Biden administration plans to expand those programs. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation targeted some $ 28 billion for conservation programs, including up to $ 5 billion in payments to farmers and landowners for planting cover crops, though the fate of the bill remains uncertain.


Much of the growth of cover crop plantations to date has been led by a limited number of conservation-conscious farmers pursuing other goals such as soil fertility or water management. Program payments rarely cover the cost of seeds and labor.

“You have to want to do it,” said McCormick, who has more than increased his acres of cover crop over the past six years and received his first payment from Bayer this fall.

“If someone wants to give me a few dollars an acre for something I do, I’ll take it. But I wouldn’t do it just for the incentive. I don’t think the incentives are good enough,” a- he added. he said, adding that his main motivation is the role that cover crops play in improving the soil and making his farm resistant to drought.

Likewise, Ohio farmer Dave Gruenbaum quickly increased his cover crop plantings from five years after liquidating his dairy herd, spanning all of his 1,700 acres over the course of each of the past two years.

“It’s about having something green that grows all year round,” he said. “It’s amazing how the ground changes.”

Gruenbaum signed up for a program administered by Truterra, which helped offset some of its planting and labor costs.

Some experts warn that a shift to more off-season cover crops could result in narrower planting windows for farmers’ major cash crops, especially if climate change triggers more volatile spring weather .

Shortages of cover crop seeds are also likely.

“There is an incredible demand boost coming… The demand for seed is going to exceed the supply, so there is going to be a huge supply challenge,” Jason Weller, president of Truterra, told a conference. of the American Seed Trade Association in Chicago last month.

While emissions from crop destruction are minimal, some critics still say the practice will increase agricultural chemical applications as acres expand.

Environmentalists say planting cover crops is always an improvement over traditional farming, which normally leaves fields fallow for half the year and forgoes a huge amount of the plants’ carbon capture potential. .

“Cover crops can be a very important part of organic and regenerative farming systems,” said Amanda Starbuck, research director at Food and Water Watch. “But it all depends on how they are implemented.”

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