In recent years, a monumental shift in thinking about how crops are produced has taken root. Naturally-occurring biological processes within soil can build the overall health and quality of our farm soils, while reducing the need for commercially-produced soil amendments such as fertilizer and repeated herbicide applications to control troublesome weeds such as mare’s tail.
This “quiet revolution” may literally be seen by all, with perhaps the most visible declaration of change being vast fields of lush, green vegetation in our farm fields in the winter months where in the past, only exposed brown soil could be seen.
Sustainable agriculture in action, in Kentucky © Mike Wilkinson
In Kentucky, The Nature Conservancy has worked towards conservation outcomes in the Green River basin for over two decades. In a region where approximately half of the land use is dedicated to some form of agriculture, achieving good conservation results always means working cooperatively with local farm producers and farm agency representatives on mutually-desirable outcomes.
On working agricultural lands, perhaps the single greatest practice that could be employed to build soil health and to protect local waterways is to ensure that a blanket of living vegetation is always in place on the soil. In recent years, the Conservancy has worked closely with farm operators to advance practical knowledge about soil health, including at two special properties in Hart and Taylor counties.
The Green River, surrounded by a landscape of forests and farms, in Kentucky. © Mike Wilkinson
In Hart County, the Conservancy holds a permanent conservation easement on a riverside farm near the confluence of the Green River and Lynn Camp Creek. While the most sensitive lands on this farm are protected as naturally-vegetated wildlife habitat, agricultural activity is expressly permitted on upland acres further removed from the river.
At this property, the landowner is not actually a farmer, but he leases his land to local farm producer Casey Flanders. In 2016, the Conservancy's Green River Project Director, Mike Hensley, reached out to Flanders to see if a partnership to implement a program to cover crop for soil health might work. Hensley was very pleased to find a willing and enthusiastic partner in Flanders, a 31-year-old farmer who is always looking to innovate and learn.
Mike Hensley and Casey Flanders © The Nature Conservancy
Hensley and Flanders quickly agreed to work together to begin utilizing cover crops on a 15-acre field on the property, including soil sampling to help measure changes to the soil over time. Even with very dry conditions in the weeks following the planting, the cover crop took hold and a carpet of green covered the field through the winter months, with a late push of vigorous growth in March 2017. In April, as Flanders was preparing to terminate the cereal rye and plant his 2017 corn crop, he could not have been happier with the cover crop project, saying, “I’ve been pleased with how this cereal rye has worked in the off season. It was sown at a very dry time with limited moisture in the soil and the stand turned out very well. It is always a welcome site to see a green field in the dead of winter. As Spring slowly creeps in, I’ve noticed it is keeping some of the early season weeds out as opposed to other crop fields that were left bare that I have scouted. Benefits I have observed thus far have been enough to convince me to widen this practice in my operation for the coming year. I have plans to implement a cover crop cocktail containing cereal rye in my cover crop system at home as well as other lease farms. Like with anything, there is no one size fits all with cover crops.”
According to Hensley, "Working with a farmer like Casey--who is willing to experiment with soil health practices, to learn on his own and with organizations like the Conservancy, all with the goal of doing right by the soil and the water and still make a good living off the land--represents one of the best parts of my job."
Cereal Rye Planting in Hart County © Casey Flanders
Just a short drive to the east, the Homeplace on Green River in Taylor county is also working directly with Hensley and the Conservancy. The Homeplace is a truly unique working farm that is owned and operated as a tri-county cooperative effort between Green, Adair, and Taylor counties. In addition, the Conservancy holds a permanent conservation easement on the entire property that ensures the farm will always be a farm, and that the Homeplace will serve as a showcase for ag sustainability and shared learning. In February 2016, Kentucky’s Senate confirmed the Homeplace as “Kentucky’s Outdoor Classroom.”
While more widely-embraced practices like no-till and grass waterways have been in place at the Homeplace for some years, the farm had never engaged in practices specifically meant to improve soil health via cover crops and “biology building” within the soil. In 2015 and 2016, the Homeplace enthusiastically embraced the promise of soil health and began working with the Conservancy on a program to utilize cover crops for soil health on some crop fields on the property, while continuing to farm other fields without using cover crops. Annual soil testing will, over time, document notable changes within the soils of both the cover cropped and non-cover cropped fields. In fall 2016, the Homeplace planted a cover crop mixture consisting of cereal rye, clover, and winter peas. Visually, the cover cropped field stands in clear distinction to the portion of the same fields that was not planted to cover crops.
Cover crop mix on left side; Non-cover crop on right. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy
Look more closely into the cover crop vegetation, and peas can be seen vining their way up the bunched blades of cereal rye.
A cover crop mix of cereal rye, winter peas, and clover at the Homeplace on Green River. © Mike Hensley/The Nature Conservancy
Farm operations at the Homeplace are stewarded by Billy Fudge, a member of the Homeplace Board of Trustees who volunteers his time and energy to help the farm prosper and serve its dual purpose of working farm and venue for agricultural education. Fudge, who has worked closely with Hensley and the Conservancy for a number of years, says, “I’ve spoken to dozens of farmers in Kentucky and every single one agrees that fields with winter season cover crops lose less soil during the winter, have less weed competition during the following growing season and have more organic matter returned to the soil than fields without winter season cover crops. But although they agree, the following question almost always follows, “but Billy Joe, is it profitable?”
No reliable scientific data could be found to support claims by farmers in other areas of the country that over time they used less chemical weed control and less fertilizer, and in combination with sufficient production were actually able to increase profits per acre over time. I do not doubt their claims, and their assertions certainly seem plausible but we cannot ask farmers to invest tens of thousands of dollars based upon unproven claims and assertions.
So, the Conservancy decided to design and implement a Soil Health Cover Crop Research Project to provide the side by side data necessary for farmers in our area to make those critical decisions affecting the health of their soils and the profitability of their farming operations going forward.”
The Conservancy is working both directly and indirectly with farmers and landowners in similar fashion throughout the Green River basin to promote awareness of soil health and cover cropping. In many cases the Conservancy works together with partners such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) via existing programs designed to promote increased adoption of these important practices.
"For a host of worthwhile reasons, we need to see cover cropping for healthy soils adopted on a nearly universal basis across our state and nation, to proactively build up the quality of our soil, reduce negative impacts to water quality, and to help mitigate impacts from a changing climate," says Hensley. "The case for soil health and cover crops is compelling from the standpoints of production and conservation, and the Conservancy and many others believe widespread, voluntary embrace of these practices will produce better and more long lasting results than any regulatory approach."
There may be no other single action Kentucky's farmers can take to show the public at-large that they are “doing right” by our soils and our waterways. Seeing vast fields of living green plants in the fall and winter months is proof positive, and a highly visible outcome for all to see.