A WInter Coat for the Farm: The Benefits of Cover Crops

This weekend I visited Seattle during the city’s coldest days yet this year. Accustomed to Los Angeles weather, I was unprepared without a hat or even sleeves on my trendy cape; it was a chilly welcome to the city. Even though I knew better from my east coast upbringing, I had overlooked the importance of protecting myself against the cold.

Our land also needs protection from the cold and the elements. Surprisingly, a lot of soil is left bare in the winter, depleting its health and life. Over time, this has made it more difficult for farms to withstand weather-related damages to crops.

Farmers too can protect the soil by putting on a better coat, so to say, by cover cropping. Cover crops, as the name suggests, provide cover to fields that would otherwise be left bare much of the year, exposed to costly erosion and nutrient losses. Cover crops are grown with the primary purpose of improving soil health during the off-season, rather than for their cash value. Farmers can choose from nearly 50 different species of legume, brassica, grass, and broadleaf crops to make a mix of cover crops that best fit their operation. Farmers typically try a variety of seed mixes to start off with before figuring out what works best for their needs, while also sometimes mixing it up if needs change.

Watch Gabe Brown, NRDC’s 2012 Growing Green Awards winner, show off and explain cover crops on his farm:

Cover crops deliver specific benefits that can be hard to achieve manually or chemically. Benefits are particular to each farm because of the variability between soil type, climate, past management, and annual weather patterns. According to a Cover Crop Survey Analysis by North Central SARE, respondents listed a variety of benefits they experienced from cover crops, including:
Reduced Soil Erosion

By growing deep roots, cover crops hold the soil and nutrients within it in place as harsh winter winds and snows blow across the field. This has great benefits since topsoil, the upper, outermost layer of soil, is an incredibly valuable resource. The USDA


Reduced Soil Compaction

The deep root systems of some cover crops also create tunnels in the ground, reducing soil compaction. They put a network of pores in the soil, which helps subsequent commodity crops to have good rooting depth – allowing roots greater access to water and nutrients. Cover cropping reduces the need to mechanically break up compaction through “tillage,” which can cost $30 to $35 per acre. No-till farming  also provides many other benefits, which my colleague Claire wrote about last week.


Reduced Fertilizer Requirements

Certain cover crops, such as legumes, are planted specifically forsupplying nitrogen, a common agricultural fertilizer, thereby helping lower input costs and improve efficiency. Planting certain crops can provide 40 lbs. of nitrogen per acre—that’s a $22/acre savings to the farmer! Furthermore, by taking up residual nitrate in the soil, cover crops also provide the indirect benefit of decreased nitrate leaching (which can cause Dead Zones) into groundwater and as surface runoff, thereby improving water quality. 

Reduced Livestock Feed Costs

In areas that have ranching, cover crops can also provide cattle with yearlong grazing as opposed to being fed in a dry-lot all winter. The economic return fromreduced hay feeding and increased grazing is huge.One farmer noted that with cover cropping, his new yearly feed cost per cow has dramatically decreased to $100-$150 per head, compared to an Illinois average of almost $350 per head. Instead of being fed low protein hay, cover crops are also beneficial to his cows, and himself, by producing higher quality beef.

To recap, depending on the operation, it’s reasonable to estimate ballpark per acre savings from cover crops at $28 (reduced erosion) + $30 (reduced tillage) + $22 (reduced fertilizer) + $100 (reduced feed requirements), for a grand total of $180 per acre savings.  To be sure, cover crops also add some labor and seed costs. The costs of using cover crops can vary widely depending on needs and farming practices. The various costs include materials: seed, special equipment for planting, and applicators; and labor costs: planting, maintenance, and burning down of the cover crops before planting commodity crops. 

In addition to those noted above, cover crops can provide a variety of other benefits, including increased water holding capacity, beneficial habitat for pollinators, reduced weed pressure, and disease reduction.

In the long run, cover crops cut input costs, improve efficiency, and eventually increase crop yields. Farmers who used cover crops to regenerate their soil had higher yields than farmers who did not use cover crops. This yield benefit was most pronounced in the most drought-impacted states, highlighting how healthy soil is one of the best “insurance policies” available to farmers. Yet only about 2% of acres in the heart of farm country currently use cover crops. To increase adoption, we could offer cover cropping farmers the equivalent of a “good driver discount” on their crop insurance, as NRDC suggested in its “Soil Matters” report. With increasing disastrous weather-related farming risks, it’s more important than ever to make sure American farms are prepared to withstand the elements. (See how extreme weather affected crops in your state and county here.)

Farmers need to cover up in the winter, as do I as I learned the hard way this weekend. And put your hat on, it’s getting cold out there!

Article by Anna Kheyfet, courtesy of Switchboard, the National Resources Defense Council

All images added by FarmOn – images do not have any affiliation with National Resources Defense Council.

Link photo courtesy of chestbayprogram

A New Family Farmer: Gaining Ground Farm

A passion for sustainable agriculture drove the Paine family to start their own farm in Yamhill County, Oregon. Not originally from a farming background, in this video they detail the hurdles they had to overcome to get started farming.


a Farmer’s Final Wish

This is an emotionally moving story of a farmer, Don Morehouse, and his wish to ride in his tractor one more time. We think this story is amazing because it really shows the love farmers have for their work, and the farming lifestyle. How many other professionals in declining health would wish to work just one more time? We bet there aren’t many. But farm life is special, and there’s nothing else in the world that can compare!

A Farm Girl Diary

Farm Girl Diaries: First Month Insights

I’ve been a farm hand for a month now, and it’s already changed my life.

What to say about my first month farming?  There’s so much – things I didn’t expect, new skills I’ve learned, parts of myself I feel growing as I work with the soil.

You’ve already seen a typical “day in the life” from my Farm Girl Diaries: Week 1and Week 2 – so I’ll give you a deeper insight into life as a farm hand on an organic veggie farm.
I Didn’t Expect;

1. My sense of time to shift so dramatically.
First of all, I now sleep and rise with the sun. My bedtime is 8:15 pm, and I wake from dreams at 4:30 am.

Second, farm tasks take a long time – my patience and focus have expanded to match.

Yesterday was a 10 hour day, where I harvested for 4 hours, washed radishes for 2 hours, bunched garlic scapes for an hour, washed lettuce for an hour, weeded for an hour, and planted honeydew melons for an hour. It all flew by, especially the varied tasks near the end.  Of course, there are days where we only weed, or spend 9 hours thinning beets.  Even then, an hour seems like a short time.

2. My job security to be so low.  

Mother Nature rules all. Despite the serious expertise of the owners and all their human ingenuity, when there’s drought, there’s drought. I have developed a much greater respect and awe for the powers of Nature. When it rains I feel such gratitude, I thank the sky.

3. To find such camaraderie with the other farm workers.

I’m surprised and grateful for the hours we spend laughing at bad puns about beets, telling and sympathizing with personal stories, trading language skills with the Spanish-speakers, and sharing our food freely. One of the Mexicans now makes a point to bring potato chips drenched in hot sauce, papas, daily – just to share.
I’ve Learned

4. How to use a water-wheel transplanter.

It’s such a nifty machine – attached to the back of a tractor, it’s got two parts: The water-wheel goes first, pokes holes in the ground, and drizzles them with water, preparing for planting. Trailing behind the water-wheel, we sit in a pair of low-hanging lounge chairs – as we graze along just above the ground, we drop plant starts into the holes and secure them in the soil… it goes pretty fast, and feels like a video game – don’t miss a hole!

5. How to harvest, wash, and bunch pretty much everything.

Harvesting rhubarb is a full-body workout, and searching for large turnips is like a treasure hunt. Washing radishes is one of my special skills (I’ve got a system built for speed!), but washing greens in the plastic tubs scrapes my forearms raw.
Bunching appeals to my visual & detail-oriented side, but it’s a delicate matter – aesthetics are everything. I love bunching garlic scapes, since they’re so beautifully spirally. I can get pretty distracted arranging the scape spirals, and often wish I had a camera.

6. How to take care of my body during long days of repetitive physical tasks.

Farming can be hard on your body, but as a dancer I’ve picked up some great body knowledge that’s helping a lot. Awareness is key. It’s too easy to focus on a task and ignore your body’s warning signals (like pain). I’m learning to work quickly while still using good body mechanics. Most importantly, I don’t bend over from my lower back.  Protect the lower back – bend in your hips and knees, keep your lower back in line with your spine.  I call it the Monkey Squat. Special thanks to my teachers for Alexander Technique!

7. In the future, I want pursue a different kind of farming.

Ours is a relatively large-scale produce farm, focused mainly on selling at farmers market, to restaurants, and to CSA members (in that order).  I enjoy it a lot, and I’m so pleased to be learning and working outdoors all day. But, for me, it’s a stepping-stone.

I want pursue a more intimate and sustainable style of farming. I want a smaller-scale, community-focused intent, with farm dinners and educational outreach.  I want to learn permaculture techniques, and wide-ranging skills like beekeeping, ecosystem management, egg & dairy husbandry, mushroom inoculation, and even more food preservation skills. It’s exciting to gain that clarity, to see my next step in a long-term vision.
I’m Growing:

8. My sense of capability and competence.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I was cut out to farm, if I would be strong and endurant enough, if I could work alongside others who were surely better suited to farming.  That changed quickly. I found that I can do and handle more than I expected, that I’m getting stronger and quicker (plus, my biceps look awesome).  The self-confidence that comes with that sense of capability is wonderful.

9. My food knowledge and skill.

I’m cooking and preserving foods I never dealt with before, like braising greens and rhubarb, let alone knew existed.  Sorrel?  Lovage?  What the…?
I’m learning, and it tastes so good!

10. My understanding of and gratitude for the Earth.

I’m starting to get a broader sense for Earth’s cycles – of plants’ germination, growth, maturity… and I’m getting a first peek at the seasons’ characteristics, of springs’ flavor & tone, of the subtle shifts in temperature and daylight as we head towards summer.

I’m grateful for cloudy days, for rain storms. I’m awed at how naturally our food grows, the intelligence within Nature – how the entire plan for a fruit-bearing melon vine is encoded within one tear-shaped seed.
It’s beautiful and humbling to watch.

Please, ask me anything!  What do you want to know about my experience as a farm hand?

Article by Patchwork RadicalsCreative Commons 3.0 Copyright
Link photo by Matt Shalvatis

A City’s Boy Perspective on a Farming Video

Farmers need to begin communicating with the public about farming.. Watch this city boy’s perspective on farming to hear why.

Cam Lawrie gives a great speech about a city boy’s perspective on farming and the role that young farmers can have in consumer education. Cam is an agricultural communications student at the University of Guelph.


Link photo courtesy of an untrained eye

Learn how to tell consumers about farming, check out Connecting with Consumers on Agriculture: “Speak with Pride”

10 Year Old Auctioneer is a Star of Stockyards


Article from Kare11.com

  Click Here to View Video

BLUE EARTH, Minn. – By now, the members of the Owens household give not a second thought to the auctioneer’s chant coming from the bathroom shower. It’s just 10-year-old Cash getting his reps in.

Come Fridays, the fifth grader is front and center at the Blue Earth Stockyards, selling cows with his rapid fire delivery.

“When he gets up there he just gets in his element,” Cash’s dad, Dan Owens, says. “It’s pretty amazing to see.”

Cash got his first lesson in auctioneering during a drive home from Montana with his dad and a family friend, who happens to be a full-time auctioneer.

“So for 795 miles home, every fence post and rock and pickup and cow and everything else that they saw got sold,” laughs his father. “I was so ready to get out of that pickup.”

When Cash’s parent’s bought the stockyards last year, he was ready to take the stage.

The four other Owens children have roles of their own at the stockyards.

Seven-year-old Chase distributes cookies to the cattle buyers in the wooden bleachers, 13-year-old Cheyenne can be found on horseback driving cattle toward the sales barn and 12-year-old Cody and 15-year-old Cole take charge of sorting.

And why has Cash taken on the role of auctioneer?

“He likes to talk a lot more than us,” Cole said.

Younger brother Chase can’t disagree.

“He was just born like that,” he says.

Cash certainly doesn’t argue.

“Could never stop,” he says. “I just wanted to talk all the time.”

So it’s worth noting that the kid who barely takes a breath, once nearly took his last.

Cash was born with intestines that had developed improperly.

“He stopped breathing,” says his father.

A Mayo Clinic team resuscitated Cash a dozen times before placing him on a respirator.

Cash spent two months in the hospital recovering from surgery before his parents were able to bring him home.

They believe that Cash’s time spent clinging to life, helped shape the 10-year-old they marvel at today.

“I just know as a mom that there’s something there,” says Leah Owens.

That hard to define “something” is what allows Cash to sit elevated in a sales ring in front of dozens of seasoned cattle buyers without a hint of fear.

“I just think he enjoys life more,” says Dan Owens. “I think he appreciates it because he was close to not having one.”

By all accounts the buyers are enjoying the experience, too.

“I probably buy more hay than what I need just to watch him sell,” laughs Lloyd Olson, who often attends the hay sales Cash auctioneers for the stockyards.

Cash is already looking ahead to his 18th birthday when he’ll be old enough to compete in auctioneering competition.

Until then, no one has to worry about him being dirty.

“I take like 30 minutes taking a shower,” he says.

As long as the hot water holds up, the sky’s the limit for Blue Earth’s auctioneer prodigy.

5 Cool Facts About Women Farmers

5 cool facts women

5 Cool Facts About Women In Agriculture

I have always been proud to be a woman in farming, but these 5 facts about women in agriculture make me even prouder!

  1. Giving women farmers more resources could bring the number of hungry people in the world down by 100 – 150 million people.
  2. In developing countries, 79% of economically active women spend their working hours producing food, working in agriculture. Women are 43% of the farming work force.
  3. Between 2002 and 2007 the number of women farm operators grew 30 percent in the US. We’re the fastest growing segment of farmers.
  4.  Women farmers produce more than 50 percent of the food grown worldwide.
  5.  Nearly half of farms operated by women specialized in grazing livestock.

#Farmvoices, Trailblazers

Last year when we sat down and came up with the concept of a movement to inspire young farmers to action, in the living room of a team member, situated in our tiny hometown with a population of 850, some would have called us crazy. I mean, you’d kind of have to be to think that your team of 5 people could make a noticeable impact within an industry as large as agriculture. But maybe…just maybe…it takes a little bit of crazy to shake things up!

While #FARMVOICES was FarmOn’s brainchild, it could never have evolved to what it’s become without farmers from around the globe stepping up and taking real ownership of the movement. At the end of Earth Day 2013, more than 2,000 farmers representing 23 countries came together to tell their stories. The results were huge. Never before had farmers come together en mass to tell the real story of farming. But on that day, things changed.

Today, we are so excited to announce that two partners have come on board in a big way, to spread the #FARMVOICES movement throughout their respective countries. The Future Farmers Network (FFN) out of Australia, and The Farming Forum (TFF) out of the United Kingdom, have been working and planning campaigns to motivate their farmers to take action this Earth Day, April 22, and participate in #FARMVOICES. Welcome to the team, FFN and TFF, we’re so happy to have you!

So today, here’s to everyone in the industry crazy enough to believe that they can make a difference. The ones who continue to challenge the status quo. The relentless mavericks refusing to conform. Those who don’t only see opportunity, but make it. The trailblazers forging change and moving our industry forward. Never quit. We need you.

Foodshed: Alberta’s Edible Alphabet – Interview with dee Hobsbawn-Smith

1. What does it mean to eat local? Why is this important?

I have a ‘concentric rings’ view of eating local as opposed to a set radius of distance. It ties in with the meaning of the word ‘foodshed’: a foodshed is a given geographic region’ s food, from gate to plate. So my concentric rings theory goes like this: Think of ripples spreading outward. If you can, grow a little garden. If it’s grown sustainably in your province, buy it in your province, especially meat. Then work outwards– B.C. for stone fruit and wine; eastern Canada for maple syrup; then North America for citrus and olives. The final ring is global, for those irresistible specialties-chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla, dried figs and dates that simply don’t grow in Canada and that I don’t want to abandon. That kind of deprivation can lead to resentment! But things like fresh mangoes and pineapples are really best eaten in their own foodshed. And as for the year-round “global food whatever you want whenever you want it culture, food out of season,” well, it’s best to wait and eat it in my own back yard. Local food really does taste better.

So I don’t say we should ONLY eat local foods, just that we buy as much as we can from local producers, especially our protein sources which sit so high on the food chain and require so much water and resources to produce and to ship.

In real life, we spend our money on what we value.

Why eating local matters has many answers. Here are a few.

Local food is seasonal food. Food follows the rhythm of nature, a beat we find hard to hear in cities. And local food is more likely to be picked ripe, so it contains more nutrients. This really matters: fresh produce loses nutrients quickly. Locally grown food doesn’t travel as far as most conventionally raised food, and local growers are more likely to select heirloom species of plants and seeds, with more flavour than varieties that are bred for the transporter’s or wholesaler’s convenience. So genetic diversity is encouraged, an important consideration in an era when seed and chemical companies like Monsanto are working hard to control seeds.

For the number-crunchers, according to several studies, farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services, whereas suburban development costs more than it generates in taxes. On average, for every dollar in revenue raised by residential development, government must spend $1.17 on services, thus requiring higher taxes of all taxpayers. In contrast, for each dollar of revenue raised by farm, forest, or open space, government spends only 34 cents on services.

Local food reflects its place, or terroir. Minerals, soil, aspect, water quality, air-all are incorporated into plants and animals as an expression of their locale. We are, as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observed in the 1800s, the chief and complete sum of what we eat. If we consume food of our place, surely place is reflected in us.

And this too: buying food from someone we know gives consumers a chance to say thanks. Gratitude is a lovely seasoning.

2. How did you get interested in local food?

I am a farmer’s daughter, grand-daughter, great-grand-daughter., and an advocate, not an activist. I put my beliefs on the page and plate to enable people to make up their own minds; I think farmers and chefs are the real activists. At cooking school in France and in Ireland, I saw and ate and cooked foods from the back yard and the waters right off the coast. My mentor, Madeleine Kamman, took her students to farmers’ market in France during cooking school in 1985; during that trip I have recollections of her sniffing red currants at the market and casting a close eye on the locally made reblochon cheese on trips to local cheesemakers. Local was the norm for me. When I opened my restaurant Foodsmith in Calgary in 1992, I was lucky to have some local growers come to me. Then, after I sold the restaurant in 1994 and began writing and teaching, I also did farmgate tours. I had people asking me -in classes, during tours, by email to my Herald column days – where and who the good farmers were, and how to find what they grew.

3. What is the best way to access local food?

Buy raw ingredients, direct from the producer. Plant a garden, even if it’s just a few greens or a potful of carrots. Shop at a farmer’s market or local-foods store instead of the supermarket. Join a community garden, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or box program. Visit a u-pick farm.

4. Living in a colder climate, such as Alberta, how can consumers ensure that they eat local year round without compromising nutritional variety?

I’m no nutritionist, I’m a chef, but common sense suggests this: we live north of the 49th. That means we simply can’t get some local foods in winter. It’s best to eat in season, but also, to preserve the harvest-can, dry, freeze-to reduce winter dependence on imported foods.

5. In your book, you mention that the goal you had when writing the book was to “illuminate the faces and personal lives of farmers”. Why is it important to know your farmer?

There are many reasons knowing your farmer matters.
Studies show a multiplier effect– that every dollar spent on local food contributes $2.50 to the local economy, almost double what a dollar spent in a supermarket generates. What’s easier to understand is that selling direct puts eighty cents in a farmer’s pocket, as opposed to 10 cents when she sells to a wholesaler or distributor. Direct sales keep Albertan farmers on the farm. So buying local – especially if you buy direct from the farmer, at a farmers’ market or through a CSA-puts more money directly into the farmer’s hands.

Beyond that, I believe in community. It’s a big circle, and we are all part of the act of food. As Wendell Berry wrote, eating is an agricultural act. Eating and cooking and growing food are all communal acts: Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, calls consumers “co-producers”. In eating together, in sharing food, we support our community, and that is a rare and precious thing in an era of non-community in increasingly huge and impersonal cities.

The number of farms and farmers across Canada is on a steady decline, according to the latest Stats Can 2006-2011 figures (and figures for preceding years). The size of farms is increasing. The conclusions we can draw from those figures are not reassuring. If we do not support local farmers NOW who raise crops sustainably for the local market, we will not have as broad a choice or control over what we choose to eat in coming years.

I believe in the importance of choosing: I want to be able to ask my farmer how my food was grown, if it is being raised sustainably, if it is from non-GMO seeds, how animals are cared for, if they are pastured, what their diet is, if they are subjected to antibiotics, all those questions of provenance. Local food has visible provenance, and restores food to its ancient role as “food”, not “commodity.” Local growers can tell you details on what field and which cow. They can explain what animal husbandry practices they abide by, and exactly how and where our food is raised. As far as GMOs go, a 2006 survey by Decima showed that most Canadians mistrust genetically modified food as risky to consume, and mistrust the motives of corporations with a GMO agenda.

6. Given the laborious nature of running a farm, and the fact that running a viable farming business can prove difficult, how do we get young people to get interested in small-scale farming?

Good question.
A societal re-think about the importance of farmers to us, that’s all. Nothing too big. Well, really, a huge thing. Better pay for farmers-that may mean higher food prices. Offer more respect to farmers: it’s a career, not a cop-out. Provide networking and educational opportunities, including mentors and job-shadowing. Find ways to improve farm safety. Make our food production system safer and more transparent. Open and support small local abbatoirs and meat processing plants that kill fewer animals per day in more humane, safer, more traceable conditions.

Find ways to make access to farm land easier and less costly: could be leasing, or farmland conservancies that help match retiring farmers without inheritors to wanna-grow youth with no land.

7. Any words of wisdom to young farmers starting out?

Find a mentor who is successful; older farmers know lots! Specialize: find a niche and start small. Don’t automatically go into large-scale anything, especially if it means a huge debt load. Try to avoid the 2nd job syndrome: a farm has to be financially sustainable for it to remain viable in the long term. Charge what your time and work is worth. Investigate non-traditional alternatives like Slow Money and CSAs, where customers/clients are more involved financially. Network: join like-minded organizations like Slow Food to feel connected and share information: you are not alone.
Learn to market your food and yourself effectively, and become a person who is comfortable interacting with people. Learn how to tell your story in an authentic and engaging way. Everyone loves a good story, especially about their food. And please don’t call it a product. What you grow or make is food. It’s someone’s supper, not a commodity.