Water runoff from a farm. Credit: North Carolina State University

By Zara Nyhus

 

Pulling up to Two Mile Creek Farm, I had to smile, because owner Steve Buxton looks just like I expected a lifelong Midwestern farmer to look. He is tall, broad, and thoroughly sun-kissed. He wears thick brown boots, a tattered red hoodie, and blue jean overalls that top off his timeless look. But Buxton’s unique farming practices set him apart from that classic farmer prototype: Buxton is one of the few fully organic farmers in East Central Illinois. He uses no chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides in his fields. Instead, he boasts about his pride and joy, the reason for his farm’s great success: cover crops. Cover crops are plants used to cover the soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested. They can be planted while the cash crop is still growing, as a companion plant with the cash crop, or after the cash crop is harvested — all for the benefit of the soil instead of crop yield. They ready the land for the cash crop by improving the health of the soil, in turn resulting in a larger, healthier yield for the growing season.

At Two Mile Creek Farm near Sullivan, Buxton has experimented with multiple forms of cover crops, ranging from eight species of legumes, clovers, alfalfa, rye, and other grasses. These diverse plants give his fields a lush, green look, as well as dense, dark soil that results in a biodiverse agroecosystem. His best-growing cover crop this year has been the medium red clover. Cover crops have a wide range of benefits with, as he puts it, “little to no drawbacks.”

Medium red clover at Two Mile Creek Farm. Credit: Zara Nyhus

Inspired by Two Mile Creek Farm, I interviewed farmers in my Central Illinois community to learn more about cover crops. What I discovered applies far beyond the Land of Lincoln. According to Liz Rupel, Policy Organizer at the Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA), cover crops are “an amazing tool that farmers, gardeners, and anyone really can plant to keep a living root in the soil. Cover crops are great at holding the soil in place, preventing soil erosion, and thus improving our water quality.”

 

Soil Erosion

Cover crops help counter a giant enemy of the agricultural world: soil erosion. Buxton calls it “one of his biggest fears in this community” — and soil erosion is a concern far beyond the local farming community. Niche agricultural methods do not regularly make the headlines of the daily paper, but climate change, water, and food crises often do. Soil erosion ties all these concepts together. Topsoil, the soil closest to the land’s surface, holds soil intact and provides integral nutrients for crop production. According to NPR, “The most fertile topsoil is entirely gone from a third of all the land devoted to growing crops across the upper Midwest,” including Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. Every year, Illinois has the highest rates of soil erosion in the United States. In 2015, about “one-fifth of Illinois farmland lost more soil than it made.” With the expectation of increased wind and rainfall, these numbers are projected to only grow with time. This vast land degradation results in loss of nutrients in consumer food, increased pollution and sedimentation in waterways, and carbon losses that exacerbate the effects of climate change.

Soil loss is detrimental not only to Midwestern farms, but the rest of the world. One study found that about $8 billion has been lost globally from soil erosion due to increased water usage, decreased crop yields, and reduced soil fertility. Soil is eroding faster than it is being formed, creating a world unequipped for agriculture. Without proper conservation practices and land management, soil will continue eroding up to 100 times faster than it is forming.

 

Water Runoff

The mix of sediment and rainwater produced by soil erosion leaks into various waterways, polluting them and, in turn, our drinking water and various aquatic habitats. Suzanne Smith, local co-owner of the 250-acre Smith Family Farms, has implemented cover crops as a solution to soil erosion. Smith says cover crops make the soil “more like a sponge so the water can actually get into the soil.” Each root of the cover crop creates pores in the ground. These pores allow water to sieve deeper into the ground, reducing runoff. Buxton described his experience of local soil erosion in simple terms by comparing his farm to his neighbor’s farm when it rains. Due to his success with cover crops, the water pools up in his fields and “up to 95% is absorbed into the ground.

“Opposingly,” he says, “as little as an inch of rainfall causes my neighbor’s farms to turn into small rivers,” consistently overflowing into his fields. This has forced him to create a “buffer of isolation” by building 30-foot barriers around some of his farms, creating tension between him and his more traditional farming neighbors.

A forecast for the 2019 Gulf of Mexico dead zone. Credit: WJCT news.

Another consequence of this detrimental water runoff is in the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” which stretches from the coast of Louisiana to the shores of Texas. Due to runoff from various water sources along the Mississippi River, such as farms, sewage treatment plants, and lawns, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are being washed into the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients result in an algae bloom that chokes off oxygen in the water and, in turn, makes surrounding marine life suffer. The region is so depleted of oxygen that most species are forced to swim away from the area, making fishermen spend more time and money by traveling farther from land to catch fish. Other species, however, become trapped and die, leaving the estimated 7,000 square mile area barren. With 40 percent of the United States’ seafood coming from the Gulf, that costs seafood and tourism industries up to $82 million a year. Managing and capturing nutrients more effectively in farming would reduce much of the runoff.

These risks of soil erosion do not stop in the United States. Flood erosion, the collapse or subsidence of land along the shore of a lake or other body of water, is rampant in places like the Philippines, India, Columbia, and many other countries. In early 2020, in Indonesia, upstream eroded sediments clogged Jakarta’s rivers and canals, causing an overflow that produced deadly floods. These floods left dozens of people dead and more than 60,000 displaced.

 

Biodiversity

As Rupel explains, cover crops are planted not only to improve water quality and soil health; they also increase soil biodiversity, a web of subterranean biological activity that improves the storage and entry of water, plant nutrition, erosion resistance, and organic matter breakdown. Buxton and I tested this ourselves by getting our hands dirty and comparing one shovel full of his soil with one of his neighbor’s. In his, we counted one-by-one and eventually found 15 plump, pink, individual worms. In his neighbor’s, we found one. Buxton’s soil is not only biodiverse but also rich, moist, and as he stated proudly, had perfect texture.

Cover crops help create biodiversity above soil, as well as within it. Mike Ward, Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, studies the impact of cover crops on migratory birds. Birds are on a massive decline in the United States. According to Thomas Benson, Senior Wildlife Ecologist of the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois has lost more than 80% of grassland-dependent bird species over the past 50 years. Cover crops provide migratory birds with a place to find insects, as well as an escape from wind and predators. According to Ward, the relationship between birds and farmers is symbiotic, as bringing a healthy number of birds back into the habitat helps control pests like beetles, moths, and rootworm that otherwise “potentially contribute to crop loss.”

Rick Faut, a farmer from the Gibson City area, uses cover crops and found an increase in the number and diversity of birds in his farm. His advice to other farmers is that it takes time, but it is possible make the changes and still be profitable. “It takes time for the soil to heal itself, the insects to rebound, and the birds to come,” he said. “It’s baby steps, but as long as we keep moving forward the rewards are well worth the effort.” Results of cover crops are, unfortunately, not immediate, making them less appealing to the average farmer. Yet with patience, they are proven to change the entirety of a farm.

This effort to increase biodiversity stretches far beyond birds and insects to our entire atmosphere. The roots in Buxton’s soil have small, white bulbs of nitrogen sprouting in every direction, something I did not realize was of great importance until we discussed the vast environmental impact that depleted soil can have. Instead of buying synthetic fertilizers, cover crops provide the opportunity for a natural source of carbon and nitrogen that will not run off into water tributaries. These two elements are leading contributors to climate change as well as essential ingredients in crop production. Fertile soils, however, can potentially insulate 5% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of nitrogen alone, cover crops suck up and insulate nitrate, eventually releasing it into the intended crop. These “nitrogen fixing plants” pull nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots. Ward finds that cereal rye is potentially the best cover crop for sequestering nitrogen, a recommendation Buxton follows in planting cereal rye at Two Mile Creek. His farm alone creates up to 150-200 pounds of nitrogen every year. To put it into modern perspective, Fugel shared a statistic from the American Farmland Trust: “50,000 acres of cover crops would have the ability to remove the amount of nitrate and phosphorus put into the atmosphere from over 5,000 cars on the road.” Illinois alone has 27 million acres under cultivation.

 

Cover Crop Incentives

Learning about the multi-faceted success of cover crops, I was itching to ask why everyone had not implemented them yet. Buxton chuckled and replied that he gets asked this a lot. “What side of the bed do you get out of? Tomorrow, I’m going to ask you to get out of the other side. And then, I want you to change your toothpaste. I want you to do what I think you should do. It’s just the fear of change. It really is that simple.”

Fear of change in the farming community can be alleviated by monetary incentive programs that are in place both at the federal and state level. According to the NRCS, “Most crop farmers across the United States are eligible for cover crop incentive payments” that help get them started using cover crops for the first three to five years. The payments vary by state, ranging from $30 to 70 per acre “for the ‘basic’ cover crop rate of a single species and increasing with the use of multi-species cover crop mixes or for special categories.” Another option is the Conservation Stewardship Program, which includes a variety of practices such as improving grazing conditions, developing wildlife habitat, and increasing crop resiliency with cover crops. The payments per acre range from $30 to 80. These financial assistance programs provide transitory support to cover cropping that make the change not only possible, but profitable. Based on the typical rates in the Corn Belt, assuming $50 per acre, cover crops will pay for themselves in a single year.

From Rupel’s experience with local farmers, fiscal yield is not their primary motivation behind the implementation of cover crops. When she speaks to farmers, “it’s not always about the financial gain by any means. They are passionate about improving what was given to them. They want to leave the land in a better place than they found it,” she said. For Buxton, it is a mix of both. He knows farmers who are saving $60,000 to 70,000 a year using cover crops. However, primarily he wants to “prevent the loss of the long term that was here” and be proud of what he farms.

Sun setting over Two Mile Creek Farm. Credit: Zara Nyhus.

Cover crops are a beautiful concept; they fix the world by planting more of it. Organic matter is, and always has been, the solution to reversing the damage that we, as humans, have created. We live in a symbiotic relationship with plants that, according to Rupel, “cannot be denied any longer.” When asked what the future would look like if all farmers implemented cover crops, she wistfully sighed, let out a soft laugh, and began describing her dream world: “Soil health has the ability to improve environmental, human, and climate health. If we start with planting cover crops, we as humans can be benefited by more nutrient dense food, cleaner water, and a better atmosphere.”

Unfortunately, this agricultural nirvana is not within our grasp — yet. But with cover crop advocates like Rupel, willing farmers like Smith and Buxton, and inspired readers (you!), we can solve the soil depletion crisis that affects us all.

About the Author …

Zara Nyhus is from Peoria, Ill. She graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in December 2021 with a B.A. in English Literature and the Certificate in Environmental Writing. She is currently applying for various environmental writing graduate programs in hopes of pursuing a career in journalism. 

This piece was written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2021.