By Jessie Haas
This spring I watched a beautiful cover crop of winter rye grow in a field I often pass. Later, corn was seeded into the rye. For several weeks the crops grew together in two-toned harmony, the rye sheltering the young corn. Now, the rye is smothered in the dense corn planting, but it’s done its job, adding nutrients and structure to the soil, and retaining moisture.
Cover crops are a powerful tool for that. They also have a major role to play in keeping sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus out of waterways. According to Sustainable Agriculture Resource and Education, a division of USDA, cover crops can reduce sediment losses 31% to 100%. They also lead to a 48% reduction in nitrogen losses and between 15% and 92% of phosphorus losses. Remember, everything a farm field loses, a nearby water body ‘gains’, usually to its detriment.
For that reason, cover crops are mandated for annual crops near lakes and streams under Vermont’s new Required Agricultural Practices. Given the many environmental benefits of cover cropping such as water protection, increased rainfall infiltration (6-fold in some systems), erosion prevention, drought mitigation, and carbon sequestration–environmentalists should be cheering, right?
Unfortunately, cover cropping as currently practiced in Vermont has led to a vast increase in the use of pesticides. It has become standard practice on large farms to knock down cover crops with glyphosate (Round Up) or other pesticides, including atrazine and 2,4-D, the active ingredient in Agent Orange. According to figures put together by Michael Colby of Regeneration Vermont from Vermont Agency of Agriculture reports, glyphosate use doubled between 2014 and 2016. 2,4-D applications increased from 418 pounds in 2014 to 5,361 pounds in 2016. (https://soaring-pesticide-use).
There are other ways besides herbicides to knock down a cover crop, including mowing, discing, crimping with a heavy roller, grazing, or simply choosing plants that will be killed by hard frosts. These methods cost less and leave more crop residue on the surface. So why are many farmers wedded to chemicals?
For decades farmers have been educated to believe that getting bigger, moving cows indoors, using agricultural chemicals, computerizing, will finally be the key to making dairy profitable. They have made substantial investments in systems to do just that. Meanwhile, milk prices have tanked, and many more farms have gone out of business. The farmers who remain have found ways to make the current methods work for them, though maybe just marginally. There is little appetite for taking a risk, and a widespread perception that farmers are bearing a disproportionate share of the clean water burden—especially as new water treatment permits are allowed that would actually increase the amount of phosphorus municipalities discharge into Lake Champlain.
States serious about cleaning up waterways can’t afford to simply switch from one pollutant type, nutrients, to another, pesticides. They also can’t afford to lose their farmers. To meet clean water goals and keep our remaining farms profitable, Vermont needs to help farmers transition to cleaner cover cropping. One option might be to tax pesticides with all income from the tax going to support individual farmers with transition needs. Education of the public and farmers, and adding grass-fed product lines to major brands, could also help. The state could also simply add language minimizing herbicides to its RAPS (Required Agricultural Practices) but, ideally, change should happen in a way that gets buy-in from farmers.
Make no mistake, though. This is a tough nut to crack at the legislative level. It will probably take farmer-to-farmer leadership and word of mouth to create a clean cover crops movement. Let’s take a stand to help assure clean water where we live, work and play.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com. Links are available with the posting of this article on the G.E.T website.