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Hefty subsidy needed for adoption of cover crops

Only 5% of U.S. cropland is planted to cover crops amid debate over their financial benefits to farmers. Congress may need to offer a “sizable” subsidy to growers if it wants large-scale adoption of the farming practice, said two university economists.

Cover crops are a salient element in discussion of agriculture’s potential contribution to climate mitigation. Proponents say they sequester carbon in the soil while reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff from fields during fallow seasons. As part of their “build back better” bill, House Democrats proposed payments equal to $25 an acre to farmers who plant cover crops, with an additional $5 an acre to landowners who allow tenants to plant the crops.

The Biden administration has announced a number of steps to encourage adoption of cover crops, most recently a partnership with three farm groups to double the use of cover crops on corn and soybean land, to 30 million acres.

If the history of crop insurance is a guide, “the subsidy needed to obtain a large planting of cover crops will need to be sizable and will need to increase as the target acres of cover crops increase,” wrote economists Carl Zulauf of Ohio State University and Gary Schnitkey of the University of Illinois at the farmdoc daily blog. “The subsidy will need to cover practice cost and provide a practice incentive.”

A subsidy of $50 an acre is commonly mentioned in discussions of cover crops, said Zulauf and Schnitkey, who estimated a nationwide average cost of $37 an acre for seed, equipment, and labor to plant cover crops. If growers are doubtful of the value of cover crops, a small incentive payment will not be enough to expand plantings, said the economists. Maryland has the largest portion of cropland with cover crops and the largest incentive payment, an average of $54 an acre.

A USDA report in 2021 said incentive payments were an important factor in adoption of cover crops, which create additional work for farmers. They are sown after cash crops are harvested and must be killed in the spring. Two USDA programs support the planting of cover crops and nearly two dozen states have programs that compensate farmers for them.

Cover crops are useful in controlling weeds that have developed a resistance to herbicides, said a 2020 report by the Conservation Technology Information Center. More than 60% of the farmers who took part in a CTIC survey said they had herbicide-resistant weeds on their farms and almost all reported some improvement in weed control, judged by the number and size of weeds, from cover crops. Previous CTIC reports said farmers saw an improvement in corn and soybean yields after three or four years of cover crops.

“Current evidence largely suggests cover crops do not raise yields or returns in the first years of adoption,” said Zulauf and Schnitkey. “Public subsidies will thus be needed to encourage the planting of cover crops.”

In the first hearing as the House Agriculture Committee begins work on the 2023 farm bill, a subcommittee is scheduled to review land stewardship programs on Wednesday.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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