A hot topic among farmers is soil health; a relatively new concept that emphasizes improving not just the chemistry of soil, but its biology and physiology. Increasingly, research reveals our utter dependence on micro-organisms for the food, fuel and fiber grown on the land, so we applaud farmers considering multi-year crop rotations, planting crops without tillage, fitting cover crops in between crops, and returning to the practice of livestock grazing those covers, all demonstrated techniques to optimize soil health.
These practices can significantly improve resiliency, thereby protecting profitability when adverse weather occurs. Healthy soil can hold more water during dry times, more effectively drain excess moisture during intense rain, and better hold and efficiently deliver nutrients to crops.
Healthy soil also offers less potential for erosion and nutrient loss, sequesters more carbon, and provides foraging and nesting opportunities for wildlife. Truly, soil health presents the biggest opportunity in generations to improve both profitability and environmental outcomes.
This is a profound and seismic shift in the direction of agriculture. Yet, a significant barrier stands in the way related to crop insurance, which has become an absolute necessity in today’s weather extremes. To be eligible for crop insurance, farmers who use cover crops must meet specific management rules. No other agronomic practice includes such eligibility rules.
These rules force many to choose between soil health and crop insurance coverage, posing three significant barriers.
First, rules fail to recognize that farmers operate at the mercy of increasingly extreme weather. Though USDA has recently considered provisions for weather, farmers heard the previous message loud and clear; one mistake on cover crop termination, even if caused by adverse weather, may lead to lost crop insurance coverage.
Second, these rules create significant confusion among farmers and crop insurance agents. In the Midwest, there are reports of farmers having been provided with inaccurate rules or misinterpretations of the rules. No such confusion occurs with other farm practices such as fertilizer application or weed management strategies because those crop insurance rules allow farmers and local agronomic experts to determine what works best.
Third, in a number of cases farmers have been denied crop insurance coverage despite following current rules. Further, in countless scenarios, agents quietly guided farmers away from cover crops. While this is an honest effort to ensure their farmer clients do not risk losing coverage, it has had a chilling effect on farmer willingness to adopt soil health practices.
USDA would argue they have already made improvements to these rules. While it’s true existing cover crop rules are better than past rules, it’s also undeniable that farmers protecting soil health still face significant problems with crop insurance.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution: end the cover crop rules and move all oversight to the existing system—referred to as the Good Farming Practice (GFP) determination process—routinely used by the RMA to oversee all other agronomic practices.
Unlike rules created in Washington, GFP relies on local agronomic experts. This allows for practices that fit unique climates and growing conditions. Moreover, GFP can evolve as new information develops.
Farmers can use cover crops to improve crop yields while improving environmental outcomes and providing cost savings to the crop insurance program. That’s a win-win.
Farmers know cover crops are vital to farming. We urge USDA to recognize it, too, and end the cover crop rules to help farmers improve the health of our soil.
About the authors:
Ryan Stockwell is Senior Agriculture Program Manager with the National Wildlife Federation in Medford, Wisconsin.
Jim Moseley is the AGree Co-Chair and a Clarks Hill, Indiana, farmer