Educational Materials for Cover Crop Adoption and Use in the Subtropics and Tropics

Final report for LS18-302

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2018: $46,999.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2020
Grant Recipient: University of Florida
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Danielle Treadwell
University of Florida
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Project Information

Abstract:

Educational materials and support systems to support cover crop adoption and management were developed for farmers and service providers in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.  This project’s objectives and deliverables contribute directly to the Southern Cover Crop Council (SCCC) and Southern Region SARE (SSARE). The SCCC was established in the summer of 2016 and finalized in Athens, GA, in December 2016 with support from SSARE, and is composed of farmers, service providers, industry representatives, and research and extension faculty from 13 states who aim to increase cover crop use through collaborative education and research efforts throughout the Southern region.

In 2017 during a meeting of the 40-member SCCC board in College Station, Texas, the SCCC prioritized the development of a comprehensive website with enhanced educational content on cover crop selection and management with input and contributions from other regional cover crop councils, farmers, NRCS, ARS, land-grant university faculty and staff and seed industry representatives. Specifically, the council identified the need for 1) a cover crop decision tool, 2) cover crop management recommendations that reflected the current science, relevant policies, practitioner experiences, and 3) a directory of services and experts to help farmers find the resources they need 24/7. Collectively, these three resources comprised the foundation of the plan for electronic educational materials. The content was organized by physiographic regions (n=9) and three farming systems (grazing, row, and vegetable) to distinguish practices among climate, soil, and system differences.

This project’s rationale was to assess needs for and produce educational materials on cover crops for farmers and service providers in subtropical and tropical climates, including specialty crop producers and farmers with agronomic crops and livestock. This project provided funding for semi-structured interviews of 25 farmers and five service providers in Florida, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico, review and selection of current cover crop educational materials relevant to our climate, and the addition of new peer-reviewed educational content, including high-resolution photographs, short videos, and fact sheets for the SCCC website.

This educational project was built on previous and current team efforts, including LS18-290, and the outputs directly reflected farmer and service provider preferences on how and why they plan to use the SCCC website materials.

 

Project Objectives:
  1. Conduct 30 semi-structured interview of farmers and technical service providers in Florida, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix and: document current cover crop practices and perceived barriers to cover crop adoption; and identify priorities and preferences for future educational content as well as electronic format, presentation, and the likelihood of use.
  2. Build an annotated database from a review of 100 publications including journal articles, technical notes, SSARE final reports on cover crop grants, cover crop publications from agencies such as NRCS and ARS, as well as instructional video relevant to the subtropics and tropics that will serve as supporting documentation for cover crop recommendations in our area.
  3. Publish five new educational products and a library of high-resolution photographs for farmers and service providers based on Objectives 1 and 2’s outcomes and make these available on the SCCC website.
  4. Implement three workshops in Florida, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix in Year 2 to present the content, receive critical feedback, and obtain recommendations for the next steps.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Duamed Colón-Carrión (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jose Perez (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Stuart Weiss (Educator)

Research

Involves research:
No
Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Objective 1. Semi-structured interviews. To better understand farmers’ educational needs in FL, PR, and USVI, a series of 30 semi-structured interviews were conducted to document farmers’ perceived barriers to cover crop adoption and educational priorities and preferences. Study methods were approved and granted Exempt status by the University of Florida’s Institutional Review Board (IRB 201802091) in September 2018. The objectives of this study were to:

  1. Describe the current practices of farmers using cover crops, and obtain farmers’ opinions on the efficacy of their practices.
  2. Identify barriers and opportunities related to cover crop adoption in row, specialty crop, and livestock farming systems.
  3. Determine priority educational and technology transfer needs and preferences among farmers who desire to adopt or improve cover crop management.
  4. Assess the preferences for educational content, format, and delivery methods for cover crop educational material and programs.
  5. Apply the findings to the development of educational materials and programming.

 

Recruitment. The target population included farmers and technical service providers. The sample was a convenience sample. Eligible participants were current farmers producing an agricultural commodity in the field for retail or wholesale markets. Participants were screened for eligibility before the interview process. Selected respondents were invited to participate in interviews in fall-winter 2018 at their convenience. Demographic information was not a criterion for study selection. We requested gender, ethnicity, and age range as descriptive data during the interview process (and after the consent form was collected), as encouraged by UF/IFAS Extension. No participant will be identified as the source of information. No benefits or risks to the study participants were identified, and there were no real or potential conflicts of interest for any investigator for this project.  

Questions. Participation in the study was voluntary. Investigators brought hard copies of the informed consent form and verbally reviewed the form with each participant. All participants received and agreed to the consent form. All participants were asked the same questions. With permission from participants, interviews were recorded to clarify impressions and increase the accuracy of recording answers. Participants were informed that they may decline to participate at any time without penalty. Participants were interviewed one-on-one by a project PI listed in the IRB application. Each interview was approximately one hour.

 Data Analysis and Interpretation. Data was recorded by hand on-site and later reviewed and verified with the audio recordings. Results of interviews were compared and contrasted among participants. Main themes were described, summarized, and compared with current published literature.

Objective 2. Review 100 publications and assemble a database of cover crop educational materials.

An annotated database of published fact sheets, popular press articles, and instructional videos was explicitly assembled for cover crop service providers and farmers in the tropics and subtropics. Our goal was to review 100 published resources, add a summary statement of content, and index them with relevant cross-referencing keywords. Three part-time students contributed to this objective. Using Google, university library databases, and direct visits to land grant university extension websites, popular press websites, and organizations providing educational services to farmers, the students searched for content relevant to farmers in these climates. Publications were downloaded, reviewed by the project the PI, and if approved, the citations, weblinks, summary, and index words were organized on a spreadsheet.

Objective 3. Five new educational materials and a library of cover crop photos for the SCCC website.

The outcomes of Objectives 1 and 2 determined the content of five new educational materials. We compared the educational needs expressed by farmers and service providers to the content that was currently published. We determined the following extension fact sheets were needed: 1) Cover crop termination for tropical and subtropical systems, 2) Cover crops in perennial systems in the southern US, 3) Using cover crops in plasticulture specialty crop systems in the southern US, 4) Annual and perennial cover crops for tropical and subtropical systems, and 5) Small farm equipment for cover crop management. The library of photographs was assembled from photographs taken by the project team and members of the Southern Cover Crop Council, indexed with photo credits and keywords, and uploaded to the SCCC member pages for use on the website.

Objective 4. Three workshops; one each in FL, PR, and St. Croix, USVI.

Three face-to-face workshops for farmers and service providers were planned for the second year of the project, one each in Florida, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix. Our overall objective for these workshops was to increase knowledge and adoption of cover crop skills and tools that conserve natural resources and increase farm efficiency and profitability. We planned to establish demonstration areas for participants to evaluate the effects of different cover crop species and management practices on common crops for the area. An IRB-approved evaluation instrument would measure knowledge gains and intent to adopt new practices.

Educational & Outreach Activities

25 Consultations
7 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

174 Farmers
132 Ag professionals participated

Learning Outcomes

40 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Using multi-species cover crop mixes to improve soil health and crop productivity

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Objective 1. Semi-structured interviews.

In the 2017 National Cover Crop Survey, US farmers reported 15.5 million planted cover crop acres predominantly in Midwestern row crop systems, including corn and soy. However, this study captured very little information from farmers located in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. We were eager to learn what management strategies are already working well, which ones might work if more educational support were available, content presentation methods that would be favored (or ignored), and what kind of content or educational program would inspire them most to try something new. Twenty-five farmers (Florida: n=14, Puerto Rico plus the U.S. Virgin Islands: n=11) and five service providers were interviewed.  

Farm size ranged from 1.5 to 5,000 acres, with the predominant systems being diversified vegetables (n=10) fruit and nut tree crops (n=6), peanuts and cotton (n=5) and pastures (n=4). In total, the farmers we interviewed farmed over 18,000 acres on 41 different soil series and produced all manner of tropical fruit, annual vegetables, and livestock (beef cattle, poultry, and small ruminants). All the farmers interviewed had either used cover crops in the past or were currently using cover crops. The years of experience managing cover crops ranged from two to twenty-seven years. Farmers cited a variety of objectives for using cover crops, including preventing soil erosion (n=9), weed suppression (n=9), increasing soil health (n=7), and improving water conservation (n=5). In Florida specialty crop systems, sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea L.) was the preferred summer cover crop followed by cowpea [Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp]. Florida row crop and forage systems predominantly used rye (Secale cereale L.) and oats (Avena sativa), but also used some radish (Raphanus sativus L.) and ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum Lam). In the Caribbean, tropical legumes including jack bean [Canavalia ensiformis (L.) DC.], velvet bean [Mucuna pruriens (L.) DC.], and sunn hemp had been used.  According to these farmers, the primary barrier to cover crop adoption in Florida was cost (n=11). In Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, the lack of experienced farmer mentors was a significant barrier (n=11). Farmers in all locations expressed concern over the cost of seed and seed availability (n=13).

All farmers expressed a preference for hands-on cover crop education at a location with cover crops planted on a farm-scale, but recognized the value of electronic media as a source of information if it originated from farmers. More than half the farmers we interviewed cited SARE as a trusted source of information for cover crops. Additional trusted cover crop resources included NRCS and specific individuals who were either affiliated with a university, a crop consultant, or were another farmer. Data from these in-depth farmer interviews are critical to understanding cover crop use and adoption dynamics among farmers historically underrepresented in national and regional cover crop surveys.

Objective 2. Review 100 publications and assemble a database of cover crop educational materials.

Many publications we reviewed from southern states were not appropriate for farmers in FL or the US Territories. Crop rotations, the crops themselves, planting dates and termination strategies did not reflect the systems in our area. We identified 41 materials from sources outside our own institution that were generally helpful, but few we could share as is with our clientele. Rather, these resources were indexed and will be used as reference material for the creation of new educational products specifically for farmers in the subtropics and tropics.  

Objective 3. Five new educational materials and a library of cover crop photos for the SCCC website.

Co-PIs participated in the Southern Cover Crop Council’s annual board meeting in July 2019 in Auburn, AL. The plan of work for educational materials and social media content funded in part by this project was proposed to the 40 members in attendance and supported by the membership. Delineation of the ecophysiological regions of FL, PR, and USVI, sources of seeds, equipment, and experts in all three locations were shared with collaborator J. Gaskin (UGA) for the Southern Cover Crop Council’s website (www.southerncovercrops.org). Drafts of the five extension fact sheets described in the methods have been initiated but none have been published at the time of this report.

A photo database of high-resolution photographs and videos, contributed by this team and members of the SCCC was provided to the SCCC for shared use. Each photograph is tagged with metadata and a short ADA compliant description. Also, permissions for educational use are granted and recorded. Finally, several SCCC documents were created for shared use by members, including an introductory slide presentation introducing the SCCC’s mission and opportunities for engagement and benefits to farmers and service providers.

Objective 4. Three workshops; one each in FL, PR, and St. Croix, USVI.

University protocols restricted travel and face to face extension programming in 2020, and workshops were not conducted as we planned. However, one on-line presentation/training in 2020, two face-to-face Soil Health and Cover Crop workshops in 2018 and 2019, and a workshop for Florida stone fruit producers in 2018 provided opportunities to educate farmers and service providers about cover crops with information developed as a result of this project.

In April 2020, the project PI presented a 45-minute webinar to Florida extension faculty and service providers titled Cover crop contributions to Best Management Practice (BMP) goals in Florida’s specialty crop systems in a BMP In-Service Training to 93 participants (25 were agents, the rest were service providers from agencies and crop consultants). A summary of the presentation authored by the host, and Treadwell’s answers to questions from participants are here: http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/clue/2020/04/14/cover-crops-help-growers-meet-bmp-goals/  

Soil Health and Cover Crop Field Day. December 11, 2019. The PI presented an update on the Southern Cover Crop Council activities, impacts, and resources to approximately 35 farmers and five service providers at a day-long seminar and field tour of farms featuring innovative cover crop practices. Held in Eustis, FL.

Soil Health and Cover Crop Field Day. On February 7, 2019, UF/IFAS Extension Jefferson County hosted a soil health and cover crop field day and organized by state and county Extension faculty and this project’s PI. The program was attended by 70 farmers (55) and service providers (15) and included a farmer cover crop expert from NC as a keynote speaker and several shorter presentations by UF faculty (including this project’s PI, who presented Multi-species cover crops for improving soil health). Following a sponsored lunch, participants toured a farm where several cover crop strategies were in use. According to the Soil Health and Cover Crop Workshop (2019) evaluation responses (n=53), one half were farmers. Among the thirty (30) farmers who described the duration of their cover crop use, there was an even distribution in terms of their history of growing cover crops; 28% had grown them for 10 or more years, 21% had grown them for 3-4 years, while three groups of 17% each had either grown them for 1-2 years, 5-9 years, or had never grown a cover crop. About 20 farmers shared information about their typical crop rotation, including when they typically sowed cover crops. When asked about the potential barriers to cover crop adoption, there were between 35 to 40 responses. The top problems identified as a “Very serious problem” were Lack of Knowledge (21%) and timing of planting (18%). The top problems identified as “Moderate problem” were Annual Cost (48%), Equipment (44%), Lack of knowledge (37%), Labor (34%) and Interference with cash crop (32%). The top minor problems were Timing of planting (38%), Labor (36%), Annual cost (35%) and Equipment (31%). Most farmers found all presentations “Helpful,” as a range of 65% to 92% indicated so. Ninety-five percent (95%, n = 44) stated that they were planning to make a management or practice change because of the information shared that day. Respondents (n = 42) identified at least one of the educational sessions as the source of information for their planned change as follows: Implementing a cropping & livestock system on your farm (52%), Multi-species cover crops for improving soil health (74% or 31 farmers), Economics of cover crops (40%), Adding value to the farm (69%), and Climate forecast for 2019 (31%). Respondent’s suggestions for future cover crops and soil health programs included (in order of frequency from most frequent to less frequent): Include more farmer speakers, equipment discussions, more practical/hands-on programs, organic production, perennial systems, cattle integration, techniques for planting and killing crops, and touring farms.

Stone Fruit Field Day. On May 29, 2018, the project PI presented Cover crop options for perennial fruit orchards to 112 participants; at least 75% (84) were farmers. An evaluation was offered, but there was a low rate of return (n=19). Based on the responses, participants rated this talk as Most Useful (41%) and Useful (8%). Several producers growing cover crops in their fruit orchards (peaches, citrus) were in attendance. As a result of this event, we consulted with several new and experienced farmers interested in adopting cover crops in orchards. Project PI co-authored one popular press article with a colleague: Sarkhosh and D. Treadwell. Improving Orchard Soil with Cover Crops. Vegetable and Specialty Crop News. Sept. 3, 2018. http://vscnews.com/improving-orchard-soil-with-cover-crops/

Additional project activities. Oral presentations by this team that featured this project’s outcomes but not summarized in the education and outreach sections above include:

J. Perez, D. Campbell, D. Treadwell, and S. Weiss. Farmers’ Opinions of Cover Crop Integration in Specialty Crop, Row Crop, and Forage Systems in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. American Society for Horticultural Sciences Annual Meeting. Orlando, FL. Aug.9-13, 2020. (Oral)

D. Treadwell, J. Perez, S. Wiess, and D. Campbell. Farmers’ Opinions of Cover Crop Integration in Specialty Crop Systems in Puerto Rico and St. Croix, USVI. Southern Region American Soc. Horticultural Sciences. Lexington, KY. 2020 (Oral) https://journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/55/9S/article-pS1.xml

D.N. Campbell , J. Perez, S. Weiss and D. Treadwell. 2020. Tropical and Subtropical Farmers Answer the 5W’s of Cover Crops. ASA, CSSA, and SSSA International Annual Meeting. Nov. 8-11 Phoenix, AZ. (Poster). https://journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/55/9S/article-pS1.xml

D. Treadwell, J. Perez, J. Love, S. Weiss, and D. Colón-Carrión. Regional, state and community-level networks advance cover crop interest and action. Agronomy Society of America Land Conservation Section Symposium: Collaborations at the National, Regional and State Levels to Facilitate Transfer of Knowledge: Cover Crops and Soil Health Networks. ASA, CSSA, and SSSA International Annual Meeting. San Antonio, TX.  Nov. 8-11, 2019. (Oral)

Recommendations:

Our team’s overall observation is that the coalescence of faculty, service providers, and experienced farmers are creating an environment that makes the information more accessible, and farmers appear to be more willing to try cover crops when expertise is readily available (preferably face-to-face). For example, a cover crop workshop was offered in FL in March 2018 before this grant began. During the Soil Health and Cover Crop Workshop in February 2019 (this grant), four out of 12 respondents (25%) stated that as a result of attending the March cover crop workshop, they made positive changes to their system, including changing the cover crop species they were using, initiating soil sampling for soil health indicators and adopting cover crops. Including reflective questions on workshop evaluations to capture the impact of previous workshops are helpful to monitor farmers’ behavior over time. Finally, we recommend educators continue to develop research and extension programs to assist specialty crop producers integrate cover crops into their systems. During the farmer interviews, we affirmed our previous belief that the need for support was ongoing and extensive. We recognize the contributions of SARE and NRCS, and those individuals who have provided valued and trusted educational resources to support these farmers.

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.