When it comes to convincing growers to use cover crops in their operations, people make all the difference.
That’s what the Nature Conservancy discovered in a study they funded that was done by a Purdue University professor and a researcher who had looked at farms in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa counties with relatively high adoption rates of cover crops.
Intriguingly, adjacent counties didn’t have similar cover crop adoption rates, and differences in temperatures, precipitation or soil type didn’t seem to be factors. The research team finally concluded that it was “social factors.”
Pairs of counties were identified where one had a high rate of cover crop adoption and the adjacent county had a lower rate of cover crop utilization. Surveys were sent to growers in those counties to try to explain the differences.
Counties with more growers using covers had more state and federal agency staff who were committed to cover crops. This “cover crop culture” included a close working relationship between NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, county Extension, crop advisors and other agriculture-related businesses. A consistent, supportive message being shared about cover crops by those professionals that growers engage with made them more likely to try covers.
Cover crop culture can take on many different forms, depending on the region. For example, in Iowa, using cover crops is linked to a long-term investment in business. It’s part of growers’ entrepreneurial culture and they’re constantly trying new things in their farm businesses.
Growers in Indiana and Illinois seemed to view cover crop adoption as more of an environmental cover crop culture.
The research team classifies cover crop utilization as something not driven by finances alone, but an issue driven by behavior, social factors, information, education and relationships.
Results from the 2021 Cover Crop Strategies Benchmark Study found that growers do indeed have many reasons for using covers, but most of the reasons given focus on building soil health and resiliency.
The study asked growers the three most important reasons they seed cover crops. For a quarter of growers, improving soil biology was the top reason, followed by reducing soil erosion for 21% of respondents. Increasing soil organic matter was the reason for utilizing covers for 14% of growers.