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Iowa Offers Incentive to Farmers Who Plant Cover Crops

Iowa, which has been embroiled in controversies over agricultural runoff and water-quality issues, has announced a novel program to give farmers who plant cover crops a $5-per-acre discount on their crop insurance over the next three years, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The three-year demonstration project is a partnership of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA), which administers crop insurance.

Cover crops are important because they soak up excess nutrients in the soil, especially during wet winter months, when fertilizer leaches out of bare fields and into waterways. Nitrogen turns to nitrate when it hits the water, fouling drinking water sources and also contributing to toxic algal blooms in lakes and rivers. Much of this excess fertilizer flows into the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico, prompting the creation of a dead zone ach year that depletes oxygen in the water and chokes off aquatic life.

“Just by planting cover crops, we could reduce nitrates loading to source water by 28% and phosphorus by 50%, according to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” NRDC said. “Yet, cover crops are only used on about 2.5% of American cropland (only 1.4% of Iowa cropland), according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. This is partly because it takes time and money for farmers to use cover crops effectively, and they may be wary of trying a new practice without a financial incentive.”

NRDC said Iowa is working with the USDA’s RMA to cover part of the farmers’ insurance premiums, though the actual cost of the insurance isn’t changing. Currently, about 80% of Iowa’s cropland is insured through the federal crop insurance program.

NRDC said it has worked with Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farmers Union, and the Iowa Environmental Council to support this effort.

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