A 2021 study by Iowa State University scholars entitled “Developing farmer typologies to inform conservation outreach in agricultural landscapes” groups farmers into four typologies or personalities depending on their approach to conservation. Conservationists “are highly interested in innovative conservation approaches, and have strong noneconomic conservation motivations.”
Productivists are “highly focused on yield and profit [and] most concerned about potential negative impacts of farm policy and the economics of commodity production.” Traditionalists tend to stick “to familial traditions passed down through the generations rather than trying new conservation ideas.” And lastly, Deliberative, as the name implies tend to “deliberate for some time before completely adopting a new idea,” and have “some uncertainty or ambivalence about conservation.”
Cover crops are a widely recognized conservation practice that protect soil, water, and economic resources on the farm. Cover crops like cereal rye or hairy vetch are planted in addition to a cash crop, like corn or soybeans, to provide living roots that absorb and protect soil nutrients.
If I were to have a conversation with each of these four types of farmers – Conservationist, Productivist, Traditionalist and Deliberative – about cover crops, here’s the approach I would take.
For this type of farmer, cover crops are an easy decision. In fact, if this farmer is engaged in row crop agriculture, they likely already use cover crops. That’s because of the proven benefits of cover crops in terms of water quality and erosion. Research on a cereal rye cover crop incorporated into a corn-soybean rotation has been shown to reduce erosion by 68% and nitrate-N concentrations in water by 31% on average.
According to a ten-year, on-farm trial conducted by Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa, a cereal rye cover crop had no effect on yield for the majority of site-years on either corn or soybeans. In fact, the cover crop resulted in yield increases for soybeans in ten site-years and corn in three site-years. Or perhaps, it’s worth pointing out that cover crops can increase water infiltration and the water holding capacity of the soil. One of the most common benefits I hear from farmers about cover crops is that “it allows them to get in the field earlier in the Spring.” Getting in the field earlier means planting earlier, and planting date is the most important factor for corn or soybean yield.And if you raise cattle, cover crops are a win-win. Mark Schleisman, who farms in Calhoun County, has been able to improve the carrying capacity of his land, increasing his cow-calf pairs from 200 to 360 by grazing his cover crops. A study on Mark’s farm found that grazing his cover crops gave him an additional revenue of $28 per acre.
For this type of farmer, I’d remind them that cover crops, or at least small grains like rye, wheat and oats, are not new crops for Iowa. In 1955 in the Raccoon River Basin of Iowa about 40% of the landscape was planted to small grains. Recently, I was reading a historical survey of Irwin, Iowa in Shelby County, published in 1942. The study authors noted that it was a common understanding among residents of the town that corn should be planted “when the rippling in the wind of the small grain was easily observable.” Small grains as well as legumes like clover have a long history in Iowa. It’s growing only corn and soybeans that is the new approach.
For this farmer I would say start small. You don’t need to plant all acres to cover crops your first year, in fact you probably shouldn’t. Start out with a handful of acres and begin experimenting, consider your farming goals, and discover what works best for you. Reach out to people who can help you make management decisions like Iowa State University Field Specialists: https://www.extension.iastate.edu/ag/crops. Or, if you’d like to learn if there’s a watershed coordinator in your area who specializes in conservation, send me an email: email@example.com.
No matter what “type” of farmer you are, there’s a way to make cover crops work for you.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of this study is which farmer personality types are the happiest. Conservationists have “the highest self-rated quality of life, both past and future.” While Productivists report “the lowest levels of self-rated future quality of life.” Why is that? The study doesn’t delve into this question, but it may be that Conservationists have more diverse farming operations that are less reliant on inputs or subjected to market whims. Or perhaps they’re confident that they are building something that can be passed on to the next generation. Or maybe by planting cover crops, native perennials or trees they’re able to find what Wendell Berry referred to as “the peace of wild things” on their land. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that if you want to join this happy group of conservationists, a great way to start is planting cover crops.