2016 cover crop initiative
Across the nation, cover cropping is a hot topic in sustainable agriculture. Many farmers, and the people who work with them, want to increase their understanding of how to make even better use of this time-honored practice for maintaining soil health. That’s why the Northeast SARE Administrative Council voted to support a regional initiative to encourage more cover cropping in the region.
The idea was to take a train-the-trainer approach to promoting successful cover cropping strategies with a goal of increasing knowledge and skills about regionally appropriate cover crop species, management practices, equipment, and technologies. The targeted participants were agricultural service providers and farmers from every Northeast state who would then be expected to share what they learned with farmers across the region.
The initiative began with a grant to John Clendaniel and Jason Challandes at Delaware State University to organize a three-day regional Cover Crops for Soil Health Workshop, held in Baltimore this past March. Eager to yield a strong return on Northeast SARE’s investment, the organizers incorporated several features into the workshop plan to ensure strong follow-up.
First, participants would attend in state teams with a designated team leader who recruited team members. Second, teams would be diverse, with a mix of agricultural service providers from universities, extension, USDA-NRCS, other agencies, private industry, and at least one farmer. Third, all participants would have capacity and interest to help farmers begin or enhance cover cropping, and they would arrive at the workshop with an understanding that this was an opportunity for them to build their knowledge and networks so they could go home and educate farmers.
The Administrative Council thought this workshop approach was great, but perhaps it didn’t go far enough. Setting high expectations for post-workshop action and recruiting motivated participants was a great first step. This should result in teams leaving the workshop with strong intentions to teach farmers, but the council also wanted to include a mechanism to encourage follow-through on these intentions. So they voted to set aside money for a targeted application within the Partnership Grant program. Workshop teams could apply for these funds to conduct post-workshop education for farmers in their home states.
How did this strategy pan out? Well, the workshop was a great success. That was due in large part to the diligent efforts of the coordinator, Jason Challandes, and the input of a large planning committee that included renowned researchers from USDA-ARS in Beltsville and regional land grant universities, NRCS personnel, extension educators, and Northeast SARE state coordinators and council members.
Ninety-four individuals on eleven teams representing all twelve Northeast states participated in the workshop. The agenda featured three half-days of presentation and discussion sessions led by regional and national cover crop specialists, and a half-day tour of cover crop research trials and equipment at the USDA-ARS Beltsville Research Center. The presentations and tour covered a wide range of cover cropping topics in both grain and vegetable production systems, including cover crop species and mixes, establishment and termination methods and equipment, fitting cover crops into rotations, and managing soil health, nutrients, and pollinator resources using cover crops.
All eleven teams responded to the targeted grant offering and submitted applications. When you read the individual project descriptions starting on page TK, you’ll see they address cover cropping challenges in each state and provide a variety of demonstrations and educational opportunities for farmers.
Northeast SARE is proud to support these efforts and we are also pleased that the outcomes envisioned at the beginning will be unfolding over the next couple of years. We invite you to learn about the cover crop projects in the summaries and stay alert for educational events happening in your state.