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Back to the Future


August 29, 2013 – Since growing green manure makes such great sense, I finally decided to incorporate it into my permaculture approach to growing veggies.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that hairy vetch – my green manure of choice – doesn’t fix nitrogen in the soil until spring.  I’ll be piling leaves and pine straw on top of the hairy vetch in November, so this time around I’ll only gain the organic vegetative matter, moisture retaining capacity, and soil aerating qualities of the vetch.  Still, I look forward to the day when I can allow the vetch to grow to full maturity.

The reason for that is that cover crops, i.e. green manure, fix enough nitrogen to fertilize one year’s entire crop of even a heavy feeder like corn.  In fact, last year the average cover-cropping corn farmer in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas enjoyed an average yield of 122 bushels per acre, despite the drought.  Those not employing a cover crop grew only 106 bushels per acre, on average.  That’s according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) latest report, Soil Matters: How the Federal Crop Insurance Program Should Be Reformed. 

Because the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) cost taxpayers  over $17 billion last year, the NRDC is coming down hard on the side of resilient, sustainable farming methods.  These include no-till farming, cover cropping, and water conservation.  Just as those who employ conventional farming methods are now being compensated for their losses through the FCIP, the NRDC maintains that it is those who control losses by means of alternative farming methods who ought to be compensated.  It makes sense, just like cover crops do: reward those who do it right, not those who do it wrong.

Here’s a list of some of the plants that not only increase organic matter and prevent erosion, but fix nitrogen as well: alfalfa, cowpeas, mung beans, red clover, and sunn hemp.  Gabe Brown, a farmer in the Great Plains, insists that cover cropping has increased his corn yields and decreased his costs.  By combining cover cropping with no-till farming, Brown avoids synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  This allows him to make money even when the price of corn falls.  How?  “ … I’m focused on regenerating the soil resource,” says Brown.

In their report, the NRDC recommends that FCIP start a pilot program that reduces premium rates for farmers who utilize cover cropping and no-till farming.  (These methods sound kind of old-fashioned, don’t they?)  They plan to take their proposal to the USDA.  By encouraging soil building in “down to earth” (sorry) ways, the FCIP can guide farmers in the direction of lowering their costs and improving their yields.  Fewer synthetic chemicals being applied to crops means fewer dead zones in our oceans, and fewer sick kids – and animals.

Sounds like an example of Back to the Future, if you ask me.


With thanks to and



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