Cover Crops, Community and Climate Change

By Avery Lavoie, Fellow at Oakridge Institute for Science and Education, Environmental Protection Agency, and recent University of Idaho graduate.

Group of people in an agricultural field
Cover crops could be one way to help dryland crop producers adapt to climate change by reducing soil erosion, improving soil fertility, and improving moisture holding capacity. Demonstration field trip in Okanogan, WA. Photo: Avery Lavoie.

Across the nation, there is an increased interest in cover crops: those planted during the fallow period or in place of a cash crop to improve soil and water quality and mitigate the impacts of climate change. In the inland Pacific Northwest, dryland crop producers may experience an increase in spring precipitation by 5-15% over the next 40-70 years (Painter, Borrelli, and Steury 2014), warmer temperatures, and drier summers. Although not widely used, cover crops could be one way to help dryland crop producers adapt to climate change by reducing soil erosion and improving moisture holding capacity, as well as improving soil fertility.

Researchers, extension agents, and conservation agencies are collaborating with crop and livestock producers to determine what will best support their livelihoods and sustain the soil and land for future generations (See REACCH and LIT Projects). But will this work address the challenges that are keeping producers from adopting adaptive practices like cover crops? Dr. Chloe Wardropper and I were interested in hearing directly from crop and livestock producers about their perspectives on those challenges and the potential opportunities for increasing cover crop adoption.

To better understand the needs of the community, we partnered with the Palouse Conservation District in Whitman County, WA. We interviewed twenty-eight dryland crop producers to explore producers’ perspectives, experiences, and challenges associated with cover crop adoption. We held focus groups at the annual Alternative Cropping Symposium to explore ways to support producers integrating cover crops. By listening to producers’ perspectives, we researchers can better identify relevant and regionally specific solutions.

Many producers perceived low compatibility of cover crops within their current cropping systems due to:

  • The specific climate in which they operate and the lack of timely, seasonal moisture available to establish a cover crop, and
  • A resulting perceived lack of short-term profitability.
Quote: “I mean, in the short term, the last five years I would say, is where things have really started to change in the advent of cover cropping in the Northwest. Five years ago, it wasn’t part of the discussion at all. So that’s evolving as well around here. We’re still trying to figure it out.” – Producer 11.

These challenges were often described as compounded by a lack of region- and site-specific research and information that would allow them to tailor the cover crops to their specific situation. Many of these producers were just beginning to experiment with cover crops and were trying to determine the most effective strategies.

The focus groups brought together researchers, crop and livestock producers, and conservation professionals to discuss opportunities for increasing cover crop adoption in the region. Participants identified the need for:

  • Long-term, region-specific research trials on the agronomic and economic benefits of cover crops to inform regionally appropriate strategies that suit the unique field-level goals of the producer,
  • Increased collaboration and information sharing between crop and livestock producers, university researchers, industry professionals and landowners, and
  • Increased research, information, and collaboration to address the agronomic, economic, and social implications of livestock integration.
Group of people in a room, watching a notetaker writing on flipchart.
Focus groups held during the Alternative Cropping Symposium in 2019 brought together researchers, crop and livestock producers, and conservation professionals to discuss opportunities for increasing cover crop adoption in the region. Photo: Palouse Conservation District.

Several participants also suggested that producer-driven research trials would improve the region- and site-specific research outcomes. Including producers as co-creators of research questions and outcomes could help these projects address producers’ challenges, and improve producers use of the results.

Participants also recognized the need for more information pertaining to agronomic factors, including planting and termination timing, locally adapted seed sources, and cover crops’ impact on pH, microbial activity and crop yield. Economic research needs included better understanding of the tradeoffs between short and long-term profitability, cost of seed, and impact on the cash crop. Information on cover crops should be regionally-specific, and ideally, tailored to the unique field-level goals of the producer.

Quote “Find those farmers that are willing to try something new and identify those who have stuck with it long enough to find out that it works and try to have them be an advocate, or poster child for farming communities. For farming communities, there’s communication from farmer to farmer and they may not listen to a scientist or something but there’s a higher chance they’ll listen to their fellow farmer or community member.” – Group H, Department of Agriculture employee)

To address collaboration and information sharing, focus group participants identified the need for researchers to address site-specific questions that are producer-informed, and for improved communication between producers. Producers’ roles include collecting local innovator knowledge, sharing successes and failures, and strengthening peer-to-peer networks. Crop advisors may strengthen relationships with producers and landlords may need more education and information to make informed decisions.

A particular area where participants identified the need for increased information related to integrating livestock with cover crops. Agronomic needs include the need for fencing, water access, and the cover crop species used for grazing, as well as how to fit livestock into their current rotation. Economic considerations include analysis of the short and long-term profitability in the annual cropping system and the general cost of integration. Lastly, participants discussed the need for facilitating connections between crop and livestock producers.

Different individuals and entities each have a role to play. Based on the focus group discussions, conservation organizations and agencies can continue to support local innovators, publicize and share trial examples (positive and negative) with other farmers and local and regional media sources. Conservation organizations can also facilitate farmer-to-farmer networks and support collaboration and information sharing between farmers, crop advisors, and owners to communicate about the benefits of cover crops. Crop and livestock producers can collaborate and communicate with their neighbors and share about their experience trialing cover crops.

Policy makers have a role too: government programs, especially insurance policies, may be more successful when they acknowledge the unique challenges that farmers face within the local, historical and cultural context in which they operate. Policies can also incorporate local agronomic, economic and social conditions and increase responsiveness to changing needs.

The farming community is close-knit and communication occurs between trusted individuals. As researchers, it is imperative that we address the needs of individuals, and collectively identify strategies to adapt to a changing climate based on these local perspectives. Prioritizing farmer-informed research questions and including farmers as co-investigators is needed to define research projects and desired outcomes. Lastly, creating spaces, like the Alternative Cropping Symposium, for members of the community to come together to share their stories and to identify solutions creates a community that can readily adapt to a shifting climate and sustain the future of farming.

Dr. Chloe Wardropper (Assistant Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Society) was the principal investigator of this work. Avery Lavoie conducted producers’ interviews, analyzed interviews and focus group data. Dr. Chloe Wardropper and Avery Lavoie co-wrote the journal article. This work was supported by a grant from the University of Idaho Office of Research and Economic Development, and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture McIntire-Stennis grant #1015330. We would like to thank our research partner, the Palouse Conservation District, who helped facilitate this work. A special thank you to the crop and livestock producers, University researchers, private industry employees and conservation staff who participated in interviews and focus group discussions.