When it comes to cover crops, it looks like the state of California — normally an epicenter for environmental activism — is fashionably late to the party. This after historic drought, wildfires and water supply problems have cost the agricultural sector dearly.
Late is better than never, right? California Public Radio shared an interesting discussion about cover crops and how the state is paying farmers to grow them to help meet ambitious climate goals. The state launched its Healthy Soils Program in 2017 and has been subsidizing cover crop planting as part of its climate-change strategy, which says plants and soils could absorb as much as 20% of California’s emissions. The state wants to be “carbon neutral” by 2045.
Soil conservation and soil health is likely the most immediate benefit farmers will see in a short term with cover crops. Jose Robles, owner of Robles Ranch in Modesto, Calif., recently told Lauren Sommer of KQED radio that cover crops are making a big difference in the health of his almond orchard, which he’s been managing since 2005.
Robles got turned on to cover crops a few years ago when severe drought was ravaging farmland there. Robles says he knew richer soils would hold moisture better but there wasn’t much organic matter to work with at the time.
Almond yields had declined due to degraded soils, and he lost one section of trees due to problems with soil-borne nematodes. He was awarded a $21,000 grant from the state to implement conservation measures.
Robles is seeding mustard and clover as a cover crop under the trees in his almond orchard, letting them grow 2-3 feet tall before terminating them with mowing. The covers, along with compost applications, eliminated the nematodes and the need to fumigate with pesticides. He also added a hedgerow to attract beneficial insects and improve orchard pollination.
Robles adds that his trees don’t stress as much during drought because the soil is holding onto moisture longer.
“The most immediate benefit we get is to our health. Now, we can pick nuts right from the trees without worrying about getting sick from pesticides,” he says.
Robles told the radio station his neighbors didn’t understand what he’s doing and retorted they’re in the business of raising almonds, “not weeds.”
With the help of these magical ‘weeds’ that improve soil health, Robles may get the last laugh at the expense of his neighbors.