Cover Crops Benefit Farms, Waters and the Climate

This spring, we’re seeing many beautiful green carpets amidst what’s left of last year’s cornstalks across Vermont. These cover crops are one of the conservation practices promoted and supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

This week, NRCS announced that in the Pike River watershed alone, they anticipate funding 1,000 acres of cover crop during the 2016 season. Many other farms across the Missisquoi Basin have already been supported in cover cropping their fields.

This is good news for waters downstream of these fields, like Lake Carmi in the Pike River watershed, and those further downstream, like Lake Champlain. Cover crops serve to prevent loss of soil that contributes to sediment loading—sediments often accompanied by phosphorus which, in excess, can negatively affect water quality. Thus cover crops also help to keep extra nutrients on farmers’ fields rather than in waterways.

A cover crop planted amidst what's left of last year's cornstalks.A cover crop planted amidst what's left of last year's cornstalks.

A cover crop planted amidst what’s left of last year’s cornstalks.

Meanwhile, like all plants, those used for cover crops fix carbon from Vermont’s air, thereby helping to decrease greenhouse gas concentrations. This extra carbon, and the other macro and micro-nutrients that cover crop plants use, become part of what’s known as green manure for farm fields.

When the cover crop of choice is a legume, it can also fix nitrogen from the air, thereby reducing the amount of nitrogen farmers need to add to their fields through other means like expensive fertilizers. Indeed, cover cropping is a win-win-win for Vermont’s farms, waters, and the climate!

Why then aren’t all Vermont farmers taking advantage of the NRCS funding available to support cover cropping and related conservation practices? In some areas, and with some soils, it can be difficult to get the corn crop off and get the cover crop planted in time for it to grow before winter.  Shorter-season corn and different tillage equipment are possibilities to help with this.  Many farmers don’t realize that cover crops are also good for their soil, increasing the nutrients in the soil and its potential for growing crops.  Lastly, due to the need for accountability of tax dollars, securing funds can be a cumbersome task. Completing the extensive paperwork and connecting with local resources available to support the process require a lot of time—another precious resource for Vermont’s farmers.

Fortunately, the NRCS is able to partner with other state and local organizations to support farmers in completing the paperwork and accessing necessary resources. The staff of DEC’s Watershed Management Division are optimistic that we will soon see most farms in the state sporting those bright green carpets during early days of spring.


Resources for Additional Information

Cover cropping as a conservation practice (Natural Resources Conservation Service):

Cover crops and green manure (University of Vermont Extension):

New website on climate change in Vermont (Agency of Natural Resources):