Supporting our farmers in implementing practices that renew the land for future generations isn’t just good business sense, it’s the right thing to do.
As extreme climate events are becoming a more frequent occurrence, so too are more frequent crop failures. If the land is unable to grow quality nutritious crops, it will be difficult to produce the quality ingredients we use for our brands.
What’s more, as soil health declines, so does the nutritional value of our food. The food we share with family and friends today has up to 25% fewer nutrients than 50 years ago.
What are cover crops and why do we need them?
These are crops that a farmer can plant, usually in the late autumn, to protect the soil after harvest until the next growing season. They are not usually harvested and monetised like the main crop.
Typically, these would be rye grasses, oats or radishes. Although there are opportunities to use a more diverse range of crops, for example pennycress, which is an oilseed.
However, a lot of farmers today no longer use cover crops, as they may have done in previous generations.
In part, this is because they have had access to modern farming technologies and synthetic fertilisers, which can provide good harvests in the short term. But this can put the long-term health of the soil at risk.
Cover crops help slow soil erosion and the loss of nutrients by keeping roots in the ground year-round. This can increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, enhance water availability and smother weeds.
They help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity and attract pollinators. Over time, they can decrease the need for inputs such as fertilisers and chemicals. By helping retain nutrients, they are also a way to act on climate change, by reducing the greenhouse gases associated with agriculture.
By contrast, bare fields between crop cycles and the practice of heavy tillage reduces the amount of carbon being locked away in the soil and releases much of what is already there, in addition to the loss of the soil itself.
What exactly do farmers gain from taking part?
There are three aspects to the programme – financial investment, technical support and social engagement.
Investment is critical because planting cover crops is an outlay for farmers, often with little financial return, so it may not make business sense in the short term. The farmers will see rewards many times over, but it needs a long-term view. We provide financial support per acre for cover cropping, and we help farmers apply for federal and state funding where available.
In terms of technical assistance, we partner with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), who are known within the state as the experts on cover crops. All farmers have a consultation with PFI to help answer their questions regarding cover crops and soil health practices. Questions may include what seed mix to use and at what rate, and the amount of fertiliser required.
The social engagement aspect is about building a network that the farmers can turn to for support as they try these new practices. When a new farmer joins, they get a welcome call from another farmer who is using cover crops offering support and to be a resource. Farmers also attend learning days and webinars to exchange best practices, as well as lessons learned around soil health.