Sarah Carlson grew up in northern Illinois, the daughter and granddaughter of farmers, in a rural community hit hard by population loss. Family farms, once numerous, were disappearing as commodity prices sank and large-scale, industrial agriculture became the most viable model for survival.
“My town was dying and many of the small towns in the corn belt are dying, and it's really because we didn't have people anymore,” says Sarah. “We’ve got to have an honest conversation with ourselves if we want people in rural places again, people who are going to care for the land.”
One way to keep farming communities alive, Sarah contends, is by returning to sustainability.
As strategic initiatives director for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a farmer-led organization cultivating support for economically and environmentally sound agricultural practices, Sarah is working to introduce more diversity to a cropping system that currently relies too heavily on corn and soybeans.
By growing cover crops on farmland otherwise left “naked” following the soybean and corn harvest, Sarah says farmers can prevent costly nutrient loss that hurts their bottom line and causes enormous damage to water quality in the Mississippi River basin and the Gulf of Mexico.
We asked Sarah why cover crops offer a solution to the water-quality crisis and how they can help farmers protect their land for the future.
What do you do as strategic initiatives director?
A lot of my work is helping farmers, who grow corn and soybeans, add new practices to their farming system, like using cover crops or having a more diverse crop rotation, such as adding production of oats into the third year of their cropping system.
What is the environmental problem caused by current agricultural practices in the Midwest?
On the Iowa landscape, we grow two plants – corn and soybeans – that only grow for a few months out of the year. We only have a living active plant growing, taking up nutrients from the soil for that short amount of time. The rest of the year, we have massive opportunity for nutrient loss. Every single acre of corn and soybeans – and in Iowa that’s 23 million acres - starts losing nitrogen the minute corn and soybeans are not actively growing in the soil. That is why we have an impaired Gulf of Mexico. We lose soil through erosion when it is uncovered and vulnerable. We lose nitrogen and we lose phosphorous because we're ‘farming naked’ much of the year.
How do cover crops improve water quality?
Cover crops improve the land’s ability to hold water, and reduce the amount of nutrients that wash into the Mississippi River basin. Immediately we see benefits from cover crops through reductions in nitrate loss. Cover crops pick up nitrogen and hold it in a form that’s more stable, in plant material. They started out as being a practice for farmers interested in conservation and in water quality and in reducing soil erosion.
What are some ways they provide an economic benefit for farmers?
Cover crops and diverse rotations protect our soil assets over the long term. But it can be hard for farmers to see the benefit, because that long-term payoff is so far into the future. Luckily, what we've seen with cover crops is that they actually make sense as an agronomic decision. They can have short-term positive returns. Farmers who plant soybeans into a rye cover crop can see dramatically improved weed control and reduce their herbicide expenses enough to cover the cost of planting that cover crop. That’s just one example. When we get to that level of management where a conservation practice can be an agronomic tool, then we've got a win-win.
What role does Practical Farmers play in helping farmers learn from other farmers about the value of adopting more sustainable practices?
We have tried to focus on ways to build community, to get farmers talking through social networks, over email, or by physically getting farmers together at the 200 events we do annually. We’re trying to get farmers together to talk more and build relationships with each other. I think that’s good for rural America. As we've lost population, and lost small towns, we’ve lost places where people could just sit and talk.
What encourages you about the work you do with farmers?
One unique thing farmers who are adding cover crops say is: ‘We just decided to farm our land better.’ Usually they have an offspring who may be coming back to the farm and so they are making a conscious decision to farm in a different way. They are thinking long term about their children and grandchildren having access to the land. They're thinking, ‘We need to prepare a space for that next generation and provide an asset that is still worth farming.