Crop insurance has been perceived as a barrier to growers adopting the use of cover crops to improve their soil health and minimize risk, but that is not the case, according to a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Environmental Management.

Researchers from Purdue University, Arizona State University and The Nature Conservancy conducted interviews and surveys to evaluate whether Midwestern corn producers were limited by crop insurance requirements on their utilization of cover crops and conservation tillage practices. For example, the insurability of field crops following cover crops must meet a specific definition provided by NRCS guidelines.

According to the study, crop insurance was the least limiting factor for both conservation tillage and covers. Costs and time/labor were tied for the most limiting factors — a fact that aligns with the 2021 Cover Crop Strategies Cover Crop Benchmark Study. In the benchmark study, 18% of growers indicated that time/labor was their biggest management challenge when it comes to covers.

Some interesting takeaways from the study include:

  • Growers responded that they were using both crop insurance and conservation practices on their farms. Only a quarter of growers seed cover crops, while a robust 90% were enrolled in crop insurance and 60% used conservation tillage.
  • Farmers stated that crop insurance and conservation were both seen as important and complementary tools for managing risk in their operations.
  • Indemnity payments are granted to growers on the premise that crop losses are not in any way caused by negligence or error by the producer. For example, if adopting cover crops or conservation tillage negatively impacts the insured grower’s crop yields, they may be at risk of losing crop insurance coverages. Growers must ensure that any practices used do not interfere with the insured crop’s ability to reach maturity.

By using cover crops and conservation tillage, regenerative practices can increase soil health and minimize risk on farming operations, according to the study. Cover crops can make soil more resilient and better able to handle changes in weather, such as infiltrating more water when heavy rains hit and drawing on that water during droughts. Crop diversification and diversifying income sources are additional risk management strategies that can help growers deal with price fluctuations and shifting market trends.

Furthermore, it’s believed that regeneratively managed farms can sequester enough carbon to offset greenhouse gas emissions generated by agricultural production. With all of these benefits, it’s surprising adoption is still relatively low nationwide, but with a greater alignment between agricultural policy, crop insurance rules and best management practices, adoption will continue to grow, and more farmers will learn for themselves how cover crops can increase resiliency and lead to better outcomes.