Some states are doing better than others when it comes to cover crop adoption.
Indiana farmers have set a new record for living cover crops planted, at 1.5 million acres, according to a recent conservation survey by the Indiana Conservation Partnership.
As a result of the record level of cover crops being planted in Indiana, it’s estimated that 1.6 million tons of sediment was prevented from entering waterways, or enough to fill 453 Olympic-size swimming pools. Those covers also prevented 4.1 million pounds of nitrogen (N) and more than 2 million pounds of phosphorus (P) from entering the water.
Meanwhile, an analysis by the Iowa Environmental Council found that it could take thousands of years to meet some of the goals in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was implemented in 2013. The strategy calls for reducing nitrate and P pollution by 45% in the Mississippi River watershed by 2035, and was estimated to cost $1.2 billion a year, in 2013 dollars. The Iowa Environmental Council analysis points out that there are not enforceable metrics or consequences for missing benchmarks — thus extending the time it will take for real change to occur.
According to the Iowa Environmental Council analysis, at current rates, it could take 85 years to plant enough cover crops, 942 years to build enough wetlands and more than 22,000 years to install enough bioreactors and saturated buffers to meet reduction targets. In 2018, Iowa planted 973,000 acres of cover crops. That’s only 8% of the acres that need to be planted with covers.
N and P feed algae toxins that made that Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for drinking water. Another troubling indicator is University of Iowa data showing the amount of N running downstream from Iowa has doubled since 2003.
We don’t have decades to make good choices for cleaning up our water and soil. What is preventing more farmers from adopting cover crops and other positive soil health practices?