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More farmers experiment with cover crops, a climate tool, survey shows

Slightly more than half of the country’s biggest farmers say they planted cover crops this year, indicating a broadening acceptance of the crops’ benefits for soil health, even with the accompanying complication they bring to land management, said Purdue’s Ag Economy Barometer on Tuesday. Cover crops received prominent attention this year as a potential way to earn money from a carbon contract while mitigating climate change on the farm.

Most of the farmers with cover crops were relative newcomers, according to the Purdue survey of 400 producers. Half of the farms reported growing cover crops for five years or less and on 25% or less of their land. Only a quarter of the farmers said they have planted cover crops for more than 10 years.

In 2017, cover crops were planted on a comparative sliver of U.S. cropland, 15.4 million acres on 153,400 farms, although a 50% increase in acreage from 2012, according to the USDA.

Growers with cover crops overwhelmingly – 81% – told Purdue the crops improved soil health and crop yields. One in seven reported “improves soil health but not crop yields.”

But 48% of farmers polled by Purdue said they abandoned cover crops in the past or have never planted them for reasons that included “lack of resources,” “not profitable,” “hurt yields,” and “insufficient soil benefits.” Cover crops require additional fieldwork to sow and later kill the plants to make room for cash crops. Growers face additional expenses for seed and potentially for equipment to handle the cover crops.

Advocates say cover crops are a long-term investment in soil health that reduces erosion and nutrient runoff, smothers weeds, helps to control pests and diseases, and increases biodiversity. “Cover crops have also been shown to increase crop yields, break through a plow pan, add organic matter to the soil, improve crop diversity on farms, and attract pollinators,” said the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education initiative.

Financial incentives from government and private groups have been a driver in adoption of cover crops as part of farming operations. In 2018, financial assistance was paid on one-third of the land planted to cover crops. Early this year, the USDA said it would provide a premium support of $5 an acre on crop insurance policies for farmers who planted cover crops this year.

The monthly Ag Barometer also found rising expectations among farmers of steep increases in the prices of farm inputs, such as seeds, fuel, and fertilizer. Some 48% expect prices to rise by 8% or more, compared with 38% a month earlier. One-third of respondents said they believe increases will exceed 12%. The USDA has forecast a 7.3% increase in production costs this year; it would be the largest outlay, $383.5 billion, in five years.

Farmer confidence slipped by 14 points in September, part of an abrupt 54-point collapse since April when high commodity prices and the U.S. economic recovery inspired optimism. The barometer now stands at 124, its lowest reading since July 2020, said Purdue.

The Ag Economy Barometer is based on a telephone survey of 400 operators with production worth at least $500,000 a year. USDA data say the largest 7.4% of U.S. farms top $500,000 in annual sales.

The Ag Economy Barometer is available here.

A set of accompanying charts, including seven on cover crops, is available here.

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

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