Promoting Adoption of Cover Crops in Southeastern Farming Systems

Final report for EDS18-05

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2018: $48,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2020
Grant Recipient: NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Michelle Lovejoy
NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation
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Project Information


Multi-species cover crops provide numerous conservation benefits, but documenting the successes and failures is important as an educational process. Cover crops can be planted in a timely manner, allowed to accumulate biomass and nitrogen, and be terminated without tillage to maximize soil health benefits. Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a living ecosystem. Soil functions with the use of cover crops is improve by: minimizing soil disturbance, increasing plant and animal diversity above-ground to enhance soil biodiversity, keeping a living root growing year-round, and keeping residue cover on the surface as long as possible. Cover crop systems improve soil microbial activity, increase nutrient cycling, mitigate against drought and pests, and increase profits over time. We want to be able to document these changes in this participatory network framework. Once producers understand these principles, the obstacles of putting them into practice is overcome.

The project is an ongoing effort with the first demonstration plot started in 2013 and more demonstration plots added each year. The Southern SARE Education Grant funds will be used to maintain six demonstration plots in winter 2018 and support field days and outreach efforts in 2019 / 2020 in the Coastal Plain region counties of Brunswick and Duplin, the Piedmont region counties of Alamance and Davidson, and the Blue Ridge region counties of Ashe and Henderson. All other county's demonstration plots were funded from grants through Cotton Inc and the NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

Project Objectives:
  1. Engage North Carolina producers in soil health benefits of multi-species cover crops.
  2. Quantify short-term changes in soil chemical, physical, and biological properties as a result of using multi-species cover crops in various no-till and reduced till production systems across the three physiographic regions of North Carolina.
  3. Refine best management practices for multi-species cover crops in production systems common to North Carolina and neighboring states in the region.
  4. Promote soil health improvement from use of multi-species cover crops in North Carolina and the Southeast to increase agricultural sustainability.

Educational & Outreach Activities

12 Consultations
8 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
5 On-farm demonstrations
10 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

70 Farmers participated
70 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Producer Outreach Workshops consisted of an educational meeting with field tours. Workshops were advertised through traditional mailings as well as email distributions, newsletters, project and county websites, Facebook and twitter.  External partners such as the Farm Credits, Southern Cover Crop Council and NC Farm Bureau Federation advertised the events to their members as well. Some Districts were able to offer continuing education credits for pesticide and animal waste licenses. Speakers included soil health experts from a variety of agencies within the conservation partnership, NACD Soil Health Champions, and the producers and hosted the on-farm demonstrations. SARE was given funding credit in the advertisements, printed materials and from the podium.

A journal article is under review with the Soil and Water Conservation Society, with Dr. Franzluebbers as lead author. Michelle Lovejoy, Foundation Executive Director, highlighted the soil health initiative at the North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meetings yearly and once at the Georgia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meeting. The SARE Cover Crop Economics Technical Bulletin was distributed to all North Carolina Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Producer Outreach Workshop attendees included North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia producers, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service staff, NC Cooperative Extension staff, Soil and Water Conservation District staff from surrounding counties, NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Soil and Water Conservation and Agronomics Division staff, fertilizer dealers, seed dealers, and others. A total of 481 people were given the opportunity to received continuing education related to soil health, cover crops, seed mixes, planting types, and groundwater management during the SARE grant.  Overall, evaluations continue to show a high approval rating with producers indicating that they could apply the information to their current operations. Since the initiative began in 2013, over 1,454 educational opportunities have been provided to our agriculture and conservation community. The table provides a summary of the workshops held during the SARE grant. NOTE: ADFP = NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation grant; Cotton = Cotton Inc. grant.

Coastal Plain Beaufort 3.19.18 9 ADPF
12.12.18 25 SARE
Brunswick 2.1.18 39 ADFP
3.13.19 26 SARE
Camden 4.4.18 9 ADFP
12.14.18 13 SARE
Duplin 3.15.18 36 ADFP
3.15.19 47 SARE
Nash 11.19.18 21 Cotton
Piedmont Alamance 12.6.18 25 SARE
Davidson 4.10.18 47 ADFP
1.22.2020 31 SARE
Rowan 10.26.19 26 ADFP
Wake 2.15.18 22 ADFP
Blue Ridge Henderson 5.2.18 12 ADFP
4.4.19 17 SARE

Learning Outcomes

145 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

10 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
4 Grants received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Initiative Enhancements

The initiative started in 2013 with Cotton Incorporated interested in finding solutions to hardpan and NRCS wanting to test multi-species cover crops in the southeast. Cotton Incorporated has awarded 7 grants to date towards these efforts. The Foundation was awarded a USDA NRCS 2014 Conservation Innovation Grant entitled “Managing Multi-Species Cover Crops in Southeastern USA” contract number 69-3A75-14-233.  The additional funding allowed the Foundation to partner with Dr. Michael Wagger and Dr. Steve Broome, with NC State University’s Department of Soil Science and Dr. Alan Franzluebbers with USDA Agriculture Research Services to scientifically document the soil health benefits being realized in the demonstration plots.

The Foundation secured funds to expand the initiative in 2016 and 2017 to mountain and piedmont counties with a focus on different crop rotation systems. Funding for the expansion was provided by the NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund managed by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Foundation secured a Southern SARE On-Farm Research grant that funded installation of soil moisture units in the cash crops to test out heat stressors in cover crop strips versus no cover crop strips. These efforts expanded the partnership to include Dr. Chris Reberg-Horton with NC State University’s Department of Crop Science. A second Southern SARE Education grant was awarded to the Foundation in 2018, allowing the project to continue in six counties in addition to the Cotton Incorporated sites.

The cover crop project is part of a larger soil health initiative that includes the Mobile Soils Classrooms. Since the 2018 SARE grant was awarded, the Foundation received its first EPA Environmental Education grant that will fund demonstrations in 2019 and 2020, 5 school outdoor learning center gardens, and the 5th Mobile Soils Classroom. Conservation partners are also in discussions regarding creating a "Soils Trails" online tool that would invite the public to explore various educational resources related to soils and soil health.

The current project results include producer-focused literature sharing lessons learned distributed to all District and conservation partners. A technical report is also available on the Foundation’s website, including data as of Spring 2019. The Foundation’s Soil Health Initiative is playing a critical role in communicating the importance of protecting and improving the soils, a vital national resource. Project reports will be provided at


Initiative Expansion – Heavy Rye Cover Crops

In 2018, a technical support group determined it would be beneficial to also promote Heavy Rye Cover Crops. Other southeastern states are seeing good results with yield increases. The Foundation partnered with the NC Cotton Producers Association, the NC Soybean Producers Association, and Wrangler to establish four sites in Halifax, Hoke, Northampton, and Stanly counties. Research was overseen by Drs. Vann, Collins, and Cahoon. The efforts were highlighted at the 2019 NC Joint Commodities Conference in addition to Field Days. Researchers produced an Extension publication entitled Managing Cereal Rye for Benefits in Cotton and Soybeans which can be found at


Total Project Impacts

Since the initiative began, over 1,500 people have been directly impacted (workshop attendees and District Boards) and up to 150 acres were planted with multi-species cover crops annually. The Foundation is a founding member of the Southern Cover Crop Council and continues to promote soil health practices through the Conservation Districts across the southeast. Conservation partners continue to note what a value these on-farm demonstrations are and that they are observing a greater willingness for their producers to use cover crops. After hurricanes Matthew, Michael, and Florence, many producers and conservation partners noted the value of cover crops to those that were impacted from the flood waters, they could get equipment back into their fields much sooner than their neighbors. Since this initiative started, North Carolina's acreage in cover crops has increased, according to SARE's survey. The Foundation cannot draw a direct correlation to the ideas that sprout in enriched minds at Field Days to actual changes in management, but causalities seem to point to this effort playing a role in the overall expanded use of cover crops.


The Soil Health Horizon's Future - Carbon Farm Planning, Natural Infrastructure, and Addressing Climate Change

A ground-swelling is occurring nationally related to how the traditional agriculture community thinks about and engages with climate change. North Carolina joined the US Climate Alliance in 2018 and since that time much work has been done across all sectors to consider how to proactively address issues that impact climate change, from flood mitigation to carbon sequestration.

The Foundation is rolling out a Carbon Farm Planning Initiative, thanks to a 2019 SARE grant, a 2019 NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Grant, and a 2020 USDA NRCS Conservation Collaboration Grant. This process will follow the on-farm demonstration model established in the soil health initiative, train up to 40 conservation partners based on the process used by the California Conservation Districts and Carbon Cycle Institute, partner with Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Program at the Roanoke Center, Virginia Tech and the Virginia Conservation Districts, and NC State University's Amazing Grazing Program.

A second process focusing on how to use traditional conservation practices of no-till and cover crops in addition to larger natural infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of flooding is also underway through the NC Policy Collaboratory grant, NC Sea Grant is the lead investigator. Project partners continue to seek resources to expand the FloodWise concept beyond the initial pilot county. More to be posted online in 2020 at

The Foundation and our conservation partners are headed down a path of exploring conservation practices through the lenses of flood mitigation and carbon sequestration. As a partnership, we are much better prepared to take this journey because of all of the lessons learned in the multi-species cover crop initiative.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.