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Creating Ambassadors of Agricultural Change

September 20, 2017
Through its Cover Crop Champions program, the National Wildlife Federation is helping farmers adopt more productive, sustainable practices

Ask Will Glazik why he plants cover crops on his 240-acre organic farm near Paxton, Illinois, and the 26-year-old corn and soybean producer recites a compelling list of tangible benefits.

They are effective at controlling weeds, he says, eliminating the need to buy and apply expensive chemical herbicides. They prevent soil erosion by keeping plant roots in the ground in cool seasons when staple crops like corn and soybeans aren’t growing. They help hold water, making his land less susceptible to drought. And they improve overall health of the soil – increasing organic matter that reduces the need for fertilizer and absorbing nutrients that might otherwise leach into rivers and streams.

The bottom line: More fertile, productive soil means better yields on the cash crops that keep Will in business.

“We only have so much soil. Right here in central Illinois, we have some of the best soil in the world,” he explains. “I want to keep it that way.”

Will delivers variations on that message to hundreds of fellow farmers each year in his role as a “Cover Crop Champion” working to increase adoption of cover crops throughout the agricultural heartland of the country.

Launched in 2013 by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the Cover Crop Champions program trains farmers who have experience with – and a passion for – cover crops as agricultural ambassadors for the practice. The aim is to demonstrate to farmers – who run high-risk, capital-intensive businesses – how cover crops can be an essential tool to make their operations more profitable and sustainable.

Agricultural soils in the United States have lost up to 60% of their original organic carbon content since conversion from native prairie in the mid-1800s, taking a toll on agricultural productivity and the environment.

Cover crops – which can include cereal ryes, clover, turnips and myriad other species – can play a critical role in stopping the degradation. They are typically planted in the fall, after the main crop has been harvested, and are most often killed off or plowed under before the new crop is planted in the spring. Farmers can also harvest some cover crops – like oats – as forage or have cattle graze them, providing additional soil health benefits.

While the soil health and water quality benefits of cover crops are well documented – and a big selling point for some farmers – many producers fear extra cost and added risk in changing how they traditionally farm.

To reduce that skepticism, NWF concluded they needed to create “an army of spokespeople” to demonstrate the specific benefits of cover crops to individual farming operations, says Ryan Stockwell, who leads the program. The best champions are fellow farmers who have credibility among their peers – and direct experience with cover crops, says Ryan.

The Walton Family Foundation provided early seed funding to help launch Cover Crop Champions and has been an ongoing supporter of the program, as part of our efforts to advance common sense, farmer-friendly solutions to water quality problems.

“We present cover crops as a way for farmers to solve problems,” says Ryan.

Older farmers, for example, who want to keep their farms in the family can be more open to hearing how cover crops improve soil health and “maximize the benefits for the next generation, to make sure they have a farm worth taking over,” Ryan says.

Farmers concerned about high input costs, meanwhile, are more receptive to hearing how cover crops like cereal rye can control weeds like water hemp, which is chemical resistant, and a major problem in areas like Illinois.

Both Ryan and Will take the long view when explaining why changing farming practices is so important to the future of agriculture and water quality in the Mississippi River basin.

Ryan Stockwell (left) and his family

Ryan grows cover crops on his own small Wisconsin farm, near where he was raised. One of his sons is interested in taking over the farm someday. Cover crops can help ensure there’s something to pass on, he says.

“The biggest long-term risk that I am facing in this area is the slow degradation of soil health and soil organic matter,” Ryan says. “If we don’t do something about it, we are going to relegate ourselves to having soil with no productivity, possibly in my lifetime and definitely in my son’s lifetime. So it’s pretty easy for me to decide that we are going to make cover crops and soil health a priority.”

When Will Glazik was still a young boy, his father began planting cover crops on the family’s 400-acre organic farm, southeast of Paxton.

“Over time you notice the soil structure changes – it starts to open up, and it’s softer and more mellow,” says Will.

He started leasing his own farmland in 2015 and today experiments with different cover crop mixes that include rye, oats, radishes, turnips, spring peas, sunflowers and buckwheat.

“I want to be the best steward of the land that I can be,” Will says. “I am excited because I see interest in cover crops is growing – especially among younger farmers. I think that is a good sign for the future.”

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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