Last summer, the state Department of Agriculture released a report on vegetative field cover and the potential that winter cover crops could play in protecting soil and combating nitrogen contamination in Minnesota’s waters.

The report noted that just 2 percent to 8 percent of the cropland acres examined in the 20-county study had been planted with cover crops – a telling number that could be difficult to budge because of the state’s climate and few markets for crops like hazelnuts and turnips that can be grown during the winter.

As a way to move the needle, a provision moving through the Legislature would provide farmers with funding and training in the use of cover crops and other soil-preservation measures, such as reduced tillage.

Indeed, farmers are again under the spotlight as the state ramps up efforts to promote soil health, protect its waters and combat climate change. A few years ago, lawmakers created a so-called “buffer-strip” program to create more barriers of uncultivated land that sit between crop fields and waterways.

Stephan Melson, a young farmer near Trimont, in southern Minnesota, said conservation practices are important but need to make economic sense for farmers. Of cover crops, he said: “It’s an extra expense. How do you account for that? How does that work in your system? Sometimes, I think those questions get overlooked.”

Seeing more cover

I spent part of an April afternoon in a field near Butterfield, a hamlet just off of Highway 60 near St. James, where Melson and longtime Odin farmer Tom Peterson were planting corn varieties over several acres of land. Melson planned to evaluate the various yields in the fall, which would help him in his role as a crop consultant.

“We’re getting a great start,” Peterson told me, speaking generally of the spring planting season. “The ground is in good condition. It’s dry. There’s no standing water. Now, if we can get some rain, that would help.”

Peterson has been experimenting with cover crops like legumes and brassica for five or six years, he said – with mixed results. One year, he had an airplane drop seed onto standing corn; without much rain after that, though, only about 20 percent of the seed germinated.

“You are seeing a lot more of these cover crops,” Peterson said. “Five years ago, you hardly saw any. The challenge, though, for that (farmer) on a corn and soybean rotation is getting a cover crop planted early enough in the fall. There’s not a lot of time.”

Suzanne Rhees, special projects coordinator for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and an author of the vegetative cover report, is familiar with that complaint. “One of the obstacles we hear about is the climate here and that narrow window for planting,” she said. “You see more cover crops in southwestern Minnesota than in the north.”

While Peterson’s airplane drop might not have worked, he was on the right track. “You are seeing more progress in that inter-seeding – that planting in rows before the harvest of the other crop,” Rhees said.

Delayed gratification

Tom Gile, resource conservation section manager for the water and soil panel, said the lack of an immediate payoff can also create some resistance to cover crops. When a farmer fixes a gully, he said, that repair is evident. Cover crops could help farmers, too, especially in reducing their “input” costs, such as for fertilizer and pesticides – but only down the road.

“It’s a cost investment,” Gile said. “It’s about a direct investment in soil health and about increasing efficiencies and reducing operational costs. But there’s no instant gratification; rather, it’s a multiyear building of things.”

That’s how Matt Tentis sees it. He and his brother, Seth, run a beef and crop farm near Kellogg, in southeastern Minnesota, that has been in their family for generations. They have been experimenting with cover crops and other soil-health strategies since 2016.

This spring, they’re trying something new: planting soybeans into a fully grown cover crop of winter rye and winter triticale. They plan to use a roller-crimper to flatten and kill the cover crop and then plant the soybeans into it, the idea being that the matted cover crop will help to depress weeds over the summer.

The brothers will pay much less, per acre, to rent and use the roller-crimper than they would have paid for chemicals – if it all works out. At any rate, they can afford to at least try since both have jobs outside of farming. And they look at the experiment in the context of creating resilient soil in an era of climate change.

“If we can protect and promote soil health, hopefully 10 or 20 years from now the soil can handle extreme rain events,” Matt Tentis said.

Help for farmers

Rep. Todd Lippert, a Northfield DFLer, is a sponsor of the soil-health bill, which would provide grants and payments to farmers who plant cover crops or implement other soil-health practices. The bill would also set a goal of getting half of Minnesota’s farmers to use cover crops or other soil-healthy practices by 2030. The legislation passed two committees in February, with some of the bill’s language now included in a broader House environmental bill.

“More and more farmers want to use these practices, but what we hear is that they need financial assistance to get started,” he said. “Seeds cost money. They would like technical assistance, too, because it takes a little while to learn how to farm with cover crops or some of these other approaches. And mistakes in farming cost money.”

Planting cover crops, of course, is just one way that farmers can promote sturdy soil.

Last summer, after storms swept through west-central Minnesota, crop consultant Dorian Gatchell of rural Granite Falls took some photos of corn fields in the area, using a drone. The photos revealed less damage on some of the fields than he had expected. He chalked that up, in part, to a reduced tillage practice called strip-tilling and wrote about his observations in an article for The Farmer, an agricultural website.

“A lot of guys who were using reduced tillage for their crop handled that storm better,” he told me. “This summer we might be seeing something similar,” he added. “If it turns dry, some of these guys who are doing conservation tillage will fare better in dry conditions. Any crop will fare better in dry conditions under these conservation practices.”

While most cover crops are planted largely for just that – the cover, or protection, they provide soil during the winter – the Agriculture Department study also considered the market possibilities for farmers.

Rhees is optimistic about that, pointing me to research at the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green initiative. One crop the initiative has studied, for instance, is the Pennycress, an oilseed that can be grown over the winter, pressed for oil and used for human consumption or as a biofuel. “Markets for those kinds of crops are emerging,” she said.

Peterson, the Odin farmer, understands the urgency of soil-healthy practices, but he has a pragmatic view. “When people want change, they want it now,” he said. “But things take time.”