July 10, 2015
Late last month, the National Working Group on Cover Crops and Soil Health released a list of ten recommendations for improving soil health and expanding the use of cover crops to achieve that goal. The Working Group rolled out the recommendations in a presentation to a variety of Washington D.C. based agriculture and conservation groups, including NSAC, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
NSAC strongly supports the expanded use of cover crops to improve soil health. We welcome the Working Group’s efforts to bring attention to these issues and applaud their recommendations.
The Working Group, which consists of 18 leaders from the agriculture and conservation community, was created following the February 2014 National Conference on Cover Crop and Soil Health held in Omaha, Nebraska. That conference brought 300 stakeholders together in person, with another 6,000 farmers and other stakeholders participating virtually.
The recommendations released by the Working Group are a follow-on to the Common Vision Statement on Cover Crops and Soil Health released in 2014 and signed by 42 diverse organizations.
Many of these recommendations are in-line with policies NSAC has been pursuing. We look forward to working with a diverse community of organizations to push many of these recommendations forward. We would also note, however, that we will also remain committed to moving forward other critical soil health practices and conservation systems beyond just cover crops.
AFRI Mini-Coordinated Agriculture Projects (CAP)
The Working Group recommends that the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) fund eight mini-CAP research projects on soil health and cover crops. The projects awarded these grants would be those that seek to answer the important questions that producers and crop advisors have about how to best utilize cover crops and improve soil health.
These multi-state regional projects would be interdisciplinary and include universities and non-profits, and focus on developing practical techniques to help farmers implement soil health practices and expand the use of cover crops.
ARS, NRCS, NIFA, and Private Sector Partnership on Cover Crop Seeds
This recommendation encourages USDA’s germplasm focused divisions within the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to work together and with the private sector to develop improved cover crop germplasm.
The recommendation calls on these USDA agencies to identify genetic lines within their stocks that have potential, scale up those stocks for testing, and then share that material with the private sector. The goal is to more quickly develop new varieties of cover crops that are regionally appropriate.
NSAC supports this recommendation provided that the resulting plant material remains publicly available to farmers and other researchers.
Integrate Cover Crops and Soil Health in ARS Intramural Research Programs
Under this recommendation, cover crop and soil health research would be integrated into ARS’s Long Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network. This is already occurring at some LTAR sites. The recommendation seeks to further expand soil health and cover crops research so that comprehensive long-term data can be collected.
The expansion of cover crops is currently hampered by the lack of comprehensive side-by-side field trial data on crop productivity, nutrient management, and other ecosystems services.
National Consortium on Cover Crops and Soil Health
This recommendation supports the creation of a National Consortium on Cover Corps and Soil health funded by private donations and matched by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. This would be the private non-profit element that would compliment the efforts of an AFRI mini-CAP effort.
NSAC fully supports this recommendation and has been actively supporting its realization.
Cover Crop Data Collection
The Working Group is asking USDA to instruct the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to collect data on cover crop adoption. This recommendation is based on the current lack of direct statistical evidence of how many farmers are actually using cover crops, why they are using them, and what benefits, if any, they are experiencing by using cover crops. There is little data about how cover crop usage has changed over time. NSAC has been pushing this same recommendation with FSA for the past year.
A 2012-13 survey by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) found that farmers using cover crops have experienced increased yields and less yield variability, but it is not a scientific survey. This recommendation also encourages FSA and the Risk Management Agency (RMA) to work together to use field-level yield data that they already collect to determine the impact of cover crops.
Decoupling Cover Crop Termination from Federal Crop Insurance
The Working Group recommends that USDA sunset the requirement that farmers follow RMA/NRCS cover crop termination guidelines in order to not risk their crop insurance coverage.
Cover cropping is currently the only farming practice with its own set of rules beyond the Good Farming Practices standards that all farmers must follow when they take part in the federal crop insurance program.
NSAC supports this recommendation and also believes that RMA should consider all NRCS-compliant practices consistent with the Good Farming Practices standard. We have submitted a proposal to RMA on this issue, which was positively received. We are now awaiting a final response.
Cover Crops and EQIP
Over the long term, the Working Group recommends that NRCS create a national initiative within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for cover crops, similar to initiatives that exist for organic transition, on-farm energy conservation, and air quality improvement.
NSAC is not in full accord on this approach. We would recommend a more coordinated approach that involves both EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Under this approach, a producer could start by adding the basic cover crop practice through EQIP on a one-time basis, but could then enroll in CSP to install and manage more advanced cover crop enhancements over a longer period of time. Those already working with cover crops could move into CSP immediately.
CSP cover crop activities include use of legume cover crops as a nitrogen source, high-residue cover crops for weed suppression and soil health, diverse cover crop mixes, cover cropping in orchards and vineyards, and intensive cover cropping in annual crops, as well as other soil health activities such as soil health crop rotations. CSP has all the ingredients to be the premier soil health conservation program.
The Working Group also recommends adjusting the EQIP application ranking factors to increase incentives for cover crops, especially in high priority areas where water quality has been a problem. When ranking EQIP applications, NRCS awards a certain number of ranking points based on national, state and local priorities. Increasing ranking points for cover crops could potentially motivate more producers to adopt cover crops.
Soil Conservation Incentive for Acres Leaving the Conservation Reserve Program
This recommendation asks USDA to provide an incentive payment to producers to establish and retain perennial contour strips on land that is coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) program.
Millions of acres of CRP land have expired from the program in recent years, and millions more are set to expire over the next several years. Many of those acres will be put back into agricultural production. As a result, a large amount of soil holding plant matter will be torn up. A program to incentivize farmers to leave buffer strips, including contour strips and riparian buffers, in these fields will help reduce soil erosion, water loss, and nutrient runoff on highly erodible land.
NSAC supports this recommendation and believes that the best way to promote buffer strips on expiring CRP land is to help producers enroll parts of their fields through the continuous CRP (CCRP) sign up, which is a more targeted component of the larger CRP. Visit our earlier blog posts for more information on CCRP and on our letter to FSA on the subject.
Support Cover Crop Adoption in the Moisture-Limited West
This recommendation aims to get at the unique soil health and cover crop issues that arise in the arid west. It asks USDA to focus resources on tillage, cover crop, crop rotations, and rangeland practices in the west where research and cover crop adoption has been lagging behind other parts of the country.
Appropriations and the President’s Budget Request
NSAC supports many of the recommendations of the Working Group on Cover Crops and Soil Health. However, one recommendation that is clearly missing has to do with funding for the programs that advance soil health and cover crops.
In February 2015, the Obama Administration released its budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2016. The request cut the FY 2016 CSP enrollment by 30 percent, from 10 million acres to 7 million acres. It also cut EQIP by 23 percent, or $373 million. Research funding for sustainable agriculture practices did not fare much better. For the fourth year in a row, the President’s budget did not include any funding increase for SARE, the nation’s primary on-farm research program. We explore this trend in much more detail in our recent post, Sustainable Agriculture Research Falling Further Behind.
We are currently fighting to increase funding for SARE and to reverse more than $500 million in cuts to CSP and EQIP included in the FY 2016 Agriculture Appropriations Bill as passed by the House Appropriations Committee this week.
So long as the President and the annual appropriations process continue to undermine soil health programs such as SARE, CSP, and EQIP, USDA’s ability to promote the use of cover crops and other soil health activities will be limited.