A total of 270 Northeastern agricultural service providers will learn how to use the NECCC cover crop decision tool. These project beneficiaries will use the tools to make cover crop selection and management recommendations for 3,000 farmers who plant 1.5 million acres of row and vegetable crops.
Cover crops are multi-functional tools that that provide numerous ecosystem services and impact on-farm economics, crop productivity, and system resilience to climate change While there is a long history of cover crop research and extension in the Northeastern U.S., information on cover crop selection and management to maximize the potential ecosystem services provided is scattered across institutions and is too general to provide recommendations tailored to the unique combinations of production goals and constraints found in the Northeast. As a result, the majority of row crop and vegetable farmers in the Northeast do not use cover crops, and those who do use cover crops may not be reaping the maximum possible benefit.
We will target vegetable and row-crop farmers in the states of DE, MA, MD, ME, PA, NH, NJ, NY, and VT via ag-service providers. In 2014, roughly 10 million acres of field and 220,000 acres of vegetable (fresh market plus processing) crops were planted in these states (USDA-NASS, 2015). Most of these acres were not planted to cover crops. In a NCR-SARE survey (2015) of farmers nation-wide, the second-most commonly cited barrier to cover crop adoption was “figuring out the right cover crop species for my system” at 35.4%, while “time/labor required for planting” was the most-commonly cited reason at 46.3% of respondents. These concerns were echoed by farmers in a recent survey conducted by the University of Vermont (Heather Darby, pers. comm.). Abundant data on cover crops exist which could help farmers in the Northeast to overcome common barriers to adoption. Making these data easily accessible to farmers could reduce the barriers to adoption across the Northeast. Our project will provide resources necessary to help farmers tailor their cover crop selection and management. We recently surveyed ag-service providers in these states (covering ~8 million total acres); over half of the respondents reported “sometimes, most of the time, or always” having difficulty locating cover crop resources. The most commonly-cited type of information respondents had difficulty locating was “fitting cover crops into the rotation” (42%), while the use of cover crop mixtures and selection of cover crops for use in difficult environmental conditions tied for second-place (39% each). The top three topics which farmers ask ag-service providers included fitting cover crops into their rotation, use of cover crop mixtures, and variety selection. Twenty-five percent of respondents reported that it was “very difficult” or “difficult” to tailor cover crop recommendations to farmer needs; the majority of respondents (53%) selected “neutral” in response to this question. There is clearly a need for a comprehensive and integrated effort to promote and support cover crop use in the Northeast.
Our proposed solution is to form a NECCC and modify existing online decision support tools for use in the Northeast. The NECCC will support and encourage cover crop use in the long-term through outreach activities including an annual conference, and by serving as a central clearinghouse for cover crop resources and tools in the Northeast. The annual conference will allow researchers and agricultural professionals to define knowledge gaps, build networks, and coordinate necessary research to address these gaps. In the intermediate- and long-term, it is our goal to use data synthesis and meta-analysis to modify several existing cover crop tools and calculators for use in the Northeast. These tools and calculators will be hosted on the NECCC website, or the NECCC website will link to them. For this proposal (i.e. in the short-term), we intend to modify the existing MCCC online cover crop decision tool for use in the Northeast. We know that our solution will be effective because we will be conducting the types of events and providing/making more readily-available the types of resources that ag-service providers indicated in our survey they were most likely to use. For example, workshops/training events (58% of respondents) were the second-most commonly cited cover crop resources frequently used by ag-service providers (extension bulletins, at 60%, were the most-commonly cited resource used).
Recruitment: We intend to recruit ag-service providers to assist in cover crop tool modification through our key individuals, each of whom will provide potential participant names and affiliations. We will then jointly contact potential participants, explain our project, and request assistance. We do not expect to have difficulty recruiting assistance given that 26% of respondents in our recent survey indicated a willingness to assist with such a task. Once the tool in each state is online and ready for use, we will reach ag-service providers to teach them how to use the tool at sessions during events such Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, Maryland Grain and Forage Workshop, Mid-Atlantic Crop Management School, Penn State Lime and Fertilizer Conference, New Jersey Agricultural Convention and Trade Show, Empire State Producers Expo, Empire Farm Days, and NRCS field days. Most of the states also have annual organic field days which we will target. These events are typically advertised online, through listserv mass emails, and via commodity-based farmer organizations.
Delivery methods: The ag-service providers who assist in modifying the tool for each state will learn how to use the tool during the modification process, which will occur during the five hour in-person meeting and through teleconferences. Once the tool is ready for use in each state and available online, other ag-service providers will learn how to use the tool both passively (through PowerPoint presentations) and actively (when computers with internet connections are available) at train-the-trainer events. At the same time, they will be introduced to the other resources available through the NECCC, such as the NECCC website. This site will include collated cover crop resources pages and listservs through which cover crop questions can be asked and answered in real-time. We intend to offer Certified Crop Advisor and pesticide applicator license continuing education units to encourage ag-service provider and farmer interest in our activities.
Curriculum topics: During the MCCC tool modification process and once the tool is available online to the general public for each state, ag-service providers will gain an intimate understanding of how the tool was created, how it works, how it has been modified for farmers in each state, and how to use the tool. During the same presentations through which use of the decision tool is taught, ag-service providers will be introduced to other cover crop resources provided by the NECCC such as its website, which will serve as a central location for cover crop information, listservs through which farmers and ag-service providers can ask researchers (and each other) questions about cover crops in real-time, and social media through which they can learn about upcoming cover crop events and activities.
Beneficiary support: Detailed instructions for how to use the tool will be posted online along with the tool. NECCC key individuals and other cover crop experts will have their contact information posted on the NECCC website, so anyone with questions/concerns can readily find someone to contact. Social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) will serve as other points of contact.