On a small farm near Laddonia, Mo., Brian Willott waded through fields of dried corn stalks that had already been crushed into the ground.

He had just finished harvesting his corn and soybeans and was preparing his empty fields to plant cover crops, which will hold his soil together and replenish its nutrients over the winter.

Willott is among a new generation of farmers working to make their operations more environmentally friendly. Traditional farming practices such as tilling and monoculture — cultivating a single crop — have come under fire in recent years for their role in harming soil and exacerbating climate change.

Willott is part of the new Climate-Resilient Crop and Livestock Project, which gives farmers and ranchers needed funding and technical assistance to make their operations more climate-smart.

“We farmers get painted as the villain a lot on environmental issues, and we’re not,” he says.

“I think this is one of those programs where we really get to show everybody what we can do to help. We’re making things better on our own farm, and it’s also removing carbon from the atmosphere. We’re part of the solution, not the problem.”

Willott has been interested in being “part of the solution” since he was a kid. Growing up on his parents’ farm, he watched his father experiment with no-till farming and crop rotation to protect the soil before these practices were well-known.

In 2008, Willott’s father received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study cover crops, which are planted after the harvest to improve soil fertility by capturing excess nutrients.

Back then, Willott says, almost no one in their community had heard of cover crops. But his father became a major advocate for the practice, and his son now recommends it to other farmers.

“Cover crops are a better way to farm, and I see mostly positives in it,” he says.

He registered both himself and his father for the Climate-Resilient Crop and Livestock programs so they could plant clover, cereal rye, turnips and radishes.

Not only will these crops help protect their soil, but they can combat climate change. Healthier soil stores more carbon and produces larger, healthier plants that draw more carbon dioxide from the air.

But for these benefits to be realized, the cover crops need to be carefully managed or they can actually be detrimental to fields, Willott says.

Kelly Wilson, the associate director of the MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture, says this is why the project’s educational resources are so important for long-term environmental and crop health.

“The other aspect of this is providing a lot more education and technical assistance to farmers,” Wilson says. “It’s one thing to receive financial assistance to offset your costs, but it’s also important to ensure that farmers can successfully implement these practices.”

The positives of planting cover crops include supporting the local environment and making crops more productive and climate-resilient. Thanks to cover crops, no-till and crop rotation, Willott says his farm still had a fairly good harvest despite this year’s drought, extreme heat and flooding.

“I think some of the reasons I had good yields this year and some other people didn’t is my father before me and I really have taken care of this soil” he says.

The Climate-Resilient Crop and Livestock Project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is set to run for four more years. Applications for the regenerative grazing, nutrient management and climate-smart field scapes programs opened earlier this month and will close in January.

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