BURLINGTON — To help the public better understand the benefits of cover crops and other environmentally friendly farming practices, three Vermont farmer watershed protection groups have partnered to produce a short video.
The video, “Protecting the Soil: Cover Crops for Clean Water,” was developed by the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition (CVFC), Connecticut River Watershed Farmers Alliance (CRWFA) and Farmer’s Watershed Alliance (FWA) in cooperation with University of Vermont (UVM) Extension. It features Vermont agronomists and farmers discussing strategies for using winter cover crops to help protect Lake Champlain and other state waterways.
“Cover crops are planted after the farmer’s main crop, such as corn, is harvested in the fall,” explained Brian Kemp, CVFC president. “They grow throughout the winter and spring to build soil health and are widely recognized as an environmentally sustainable way for farmers to prevent nutrients and sediment from leaving the fields.”
According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) data, Vermont farmers planted a record-setting 25,727 acres of cover crops on more than 2,000 fields in 2016 on approximately 25 percent of all annual cropland in Vermont. That’s a 58 percent increase in the acres of protective winter cover crops planted in 2015, according to NRCS.
These included a diversity of plant species such as winter cereal rye, annual ryegrass, oats, clover, vetch and even radish and turnip. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help farmers plant cover crops and tracks the acres planted. However, many farmers in Vermont plant cover crops on their own, without any assistance, so the acres planted may be even greater.
FWA has documented acreage planted in cover crops on farms in Franklin and Grand Isle counties since the group was established in 2006. In 2016 a total of 10,155 acres of cover crops were planted on these farms.
CVFC was established in 2013 and includes farmers in Addison, Chittenden and Rutland counties. They planted 9,100 acres of cover crops last year, an increase of more than 30 percent compared to 2015. CRWFA, which was organized in 2016 and represents farmers in seven Vermont and New Hampshire counties, expects to have similar data to report starting in 2017.
“The adoption of cover crops in Vermont has been extremely rapid over the past couple years,” said Heather Darby, UVM Extension agronomist and FWA treasurer. “Farmers are thinking about their soils in new and innovative ways because they understand the environmental and agronomic benefits to improve the soil, control erosion and protect our waterways.”
Cover crops also are helping farmers to meet goals recently outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect and restore the waters of Lake Champlain. In 2016, EPA established new phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDLs) for Lake Champlain to reduce nutrient runoff. The TMDLs were developed in collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
One way Vermont farmers have responded is by increasing acreage protected by cover crops to prevent nutrients from leaving their fields. UVM Extension estimates that the 25,727 acres of cover crops planted last year will prevent an estimated 28,000 tons of topsoil from leaving fields as erosion. Additionally, an estimated 51 tons of phosphorus was conserved in the cover crop plants and is available to feed the next crop to be grown.