Corn field (copy)

Sorghum Sudangrass, clover and an Italian ryegrass mixture is a way to diversify cover crops. 

I’m a proud Wisconsinite, and I bleed as red for the Badgers, Bucks, Brewers and Packers as anyone. But at the moment, I’m green — with envy.

For two years, I’ve admired the gumption and foresight that Iowans demonstrated in 2017 in creating a program to help their farmers and protect their precious heritage of rich prairie soils. Like Wisconsin, these soils — some of the richest on the globe — are subject to erosion, and Iowans worried about the rate at which they were eroding. They were conscious that crops for which their state is known — corn and soybeans — leave the soil particularly subject to erosion, leaving a lot of Iowa farmland uncovered during vulnerable points of the year.

So Iowa leaders did something practical. They sought to encourage farmers to plant crops that hold soil during vulnerable periods after harvest, through the winter and until the next year’s crop forms roots and a canopy to secure the soil. These “cover crops” include a wide variety of grasses, legumes, and brassicas, such as cereal rye, clovers and vetches, and even radishes that look like they belong in the kitchen of a kimchi chef. Cover crops not only secure soil, but they also offer soil microbes a varied menu, creating a richer soil microbial environment. This healthier soil actually absorbs more water, rather than having water run off of it, and requires less effort to till and plant in future years.

Many farmers know that cover crops are a sound idea — and even can save them money and increase resilience to extreme weather conditions by preparing healthier soil into which to plant next year’s crop. But Iowa agricultural leaders understood that for various reasons, many farmers resisted planting cover crops — seemingly too much bother, the cost of seed, and some crop insurance agents’ resistance to their doing so.

With only 3 percent of their cropland acres in cover crops, Iowa has taken several measures to tackle various of these barriers, but one launched in 2017 interests me particularly: a pilot program to reduce farmers’ crop insurance premium by $5 per acre on acres planted into cover crops. This program was championed by then Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey,  a Republican. In its first year, Iowa’s crop insurance for cover crops program resulted in 700 farmers receiving premiums for 170,000 acres of cover crops planted. 

My husband mutters, “Flatlanders!” each time an Illinois driver streaks by us on the highway. But last week, Illinois showed its commitment to bipartisan conservation problem-solving when it also stepped up with a similar program called “Fall Covers for Spring Savings: Crop Insurance Reward Pilot Program.” As with Iowa’s program, Illinois will pay farmers $5 per acre of cover crops planted. Kris Reynolds, with the American Farmland Trust, says their collaboration with numerous Illinois partners brought this about.

“The right legislators and the right people in the department of ag had to approve this. Thank you, Illinois Department of Agriculture, for taking an interest in this program and approving it," Reynolds said.

In Wisconsin, just 6 percent of our cropland is in cover crops. Besides casting jealous glances west and south (and maybe north as well; we hear that Minnesota is moving forward on a similar program), how might our conservation-minded farm community interest our legislative and administrative leaders in supporting farmers with a similar program here?

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

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