Merrimack County New Hampshire Cover Crop Seed Production Feasibility Project

Final report for ONE21-401

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $11,339.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2023
Grant Recipient: Merrimack County Conservation District
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Jessica Newnan
Merrimack County Conservation District
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Project Information


Though many farmers utilize the practice of cover cropping for soil fertility, there is no commercial producer of cover crop seeds specific to the needs of New Hampshire's agricultural producers.  Having to ship in cover crop seeds is not only expensive, but it is sometimes unreliable and comes with its own environmental impacts.  Merrimack County has the opportunity to bring municipal and private lands into agricultural production to address the needs of local farmers.  This project was aimed to conduct a feasibility assessment to determine the viability of such an endeavor and to create a plan for implementation, should it be feasible.  A team of staff from the Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD), local farmers, community partners, and Extension specialists held monthly meetings to discuss logistics, costs, multifunctionality of facilities, and projected income in order to keep the operation running.  The team conducted a market survey to determine the interest in purchasing local cover crop seeds as well as the utilization of processing facilities.  Once all data had been collected and reviewed, the team assessed the feasibility of growing seeds for cover cropping and determined the next steps. 

Throughout the project, MCCD staff has conducted outreach to farmers and the community through newsletters and email marketing in order to invite farmers to participate in proceedings, distribute the market survey, release the results of the feasibility assessment, and communicate information about soil health.  This project also brought MCCD and partners in collaboration with artisanal grain producers whose needs and goals were synergetic with this project as well and will most likely be integral in the next phase of this project.    

Large scale production of cover crop seed would be difficult to accomplish in New Hampshire as equipment is expensive, land could be used for other purposes that, at least in the short term, would yield more income, cost of land is high, and there is still considerable work to do in terms of infrastructure and farmer training.  That being said, municipal land is still available for this project, both in terms of arable land and location for infrastructure, and the essential capacity needed to make infrastructure purchases necessary can be met if tied together with farmers growing grains for food.  The interest is there from agricultural producers and collaborations are being made in order to tackle the next phase of this project, which will involve fundraising for shareable equipment, training and education for agricultural producers, and larger trials of cover crop production on municipal lands as smaller test plots were successful in 2022. 

The Merrimack County Conservation District and partners have created an action plan to tackle the easiest part of this project: additional test plots on municipal land, outreach events at NHTI, and fundraising for a high quality traveling thresher for shared use among agricultural producers.  The longer term action plan is to work collaboratively with the artisanal grain growers to work out larger infrastructure purchases, how to fundraise for them, and where to locate them.  MCCD and partners are eager to tackle these next steps in 2023-2025.  

Project Objectives:
  1. This project sought to assess the feasibility of growing cover crop seeds on private and municipal lands while establishing infrastructure to process, store, and distribute the seeds to local farmers.  The assessment will uncover the potential success of the endeavor by looking at the costs, the capacity of the land, and the resources that would be necessary to continue the project.
  2. This project sought to create a plan of action to proceed with the endeavor based on the findings of the feasibility assessment.  The benefits associated with this plan are anticipated to be reduced costs to farmers utilizing the practice of cover cropping, improved access to cover crop seeds, and new market opportunities with the establishment of processing facilities.

Cover cropping is a widely accepted fertility management practice farmers utilize to maintain soil health.  There are barriers, however, to implementing this practice depending on where the farm is located.  According to a 2012 SARE survey found that 20% of farmers cited lack of access to cover crop seeds as the barrier which kept them from utilizing this practice (White, 2014).  Currently, there is no local source of cover crop seeds in New Hampshire.  Farmers have to order seeds from out-of-state companies in order to utilize the beneficial practice of cover cropping their land for fertility management.  An article from Penn State Extension indicates that cover crop seeds come from all over the world, but the majority that are grown in the United States come from Oregon, with some grown in Texas and North Dakota (Larson, 2019).  Because of the broad geographic scope from which the seed is sourced, cover cropping is not only expensive to do, but also requires the seeds to be shipped in, creating its own environmental impacts.  Growing cover crop seeds comes with considerations too.  Steve Groff, a cover crop consultant, points out that different kinds of cover crop seeds require different machinery to harvest and clean (Groff, 2018).  The cost of this equipment is often a barrier to entry for farmers looking to grow their own seed.

Merrimack County has the opportunity to bring municipal lands which are currently unutilized into production.  In considering the possible uses for this land, it was identified that the issue of local cover crop seed production could be addressed, and ultimately benefit local farmers.  Besides providing a local source of seed and reducing the environmental impacts of cover cropping for farmers, the facilities needed to process the seed would serve as a community resource.  Much of the equipment would be multifunctional in that it would be able to process both seeds and grains.  Grain processing facilities are not available in New Hampshire unless they are privately owned, and are expensive to get started.  By providing this resource, farmers would have the ability to expand into new markets.

Through this project, the Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) and its partners will conduct a feasibility assessment of setting up the infrastructure to make cover crop seed production on municipal lands possible.   The team will include farmers, MCCD staff, and technical advisors experienced with cover crops and seed production in order to assess the feasibility of this endeavor and create a plan on how to proceed.  Should the project be feasible, the municipal production of cover crop seeds would make cover cropping more affordable to farmers who already utilize the practice, and also open up the opportunity for farmers to implement it where it had previously been cost prohibitive.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Laura French - Producer
  • Tracey Lesser (Educator)
  • Chris Peterson - Producer
  • Ray Ramsey - Producer
  • Si Robertson - Producer
  • Carl Majewski (Educator)


Materials and methods:

To conduct the feasibility assessment as described in the first objective, the team met on a monthly basis until the spring planting occurred, which team members were unable to attend afterwards.  Each meeting had a specific topic or section of the feasibility assessment to be addressed, and MCCD staff recorded to capture the discussed information.  Topics included creating a list of necessary equipment, addressing soil fertility management, exploring best practices for weed and pest management, and processing facility infrastructure needs.  Either at or before this meeting, the approximate acreage being brought into production will be calculated, and the approximate yield of different cover crop seed varieties will be discussed.   All data will be recorded in a production capacity spreadsheet. 

Soil samples were also taken at potentially available municipal lands and at commercial farms potentially interested in participating.  These tests used the University of New Hampshire Soil Laboratory and Cornell University for their soil health testing.  The data from the tests will be used to determine the amendments needed to begin cover crop seed production and thus will inform the list of startup costs.

Surveys were also created, disseminated, and reviewed by the team related to farmer interest in the program and market interest in the program.

When farmers were not able to attend meetings, Stacy Luke and Jessica Newnan conducted individual interviews. This also occurred with project partners after the scheduled meetings.  

In addition to the originally proposed project, MCCD conducted test plots at the Merrimack County Farm in order to assess growing capacity at the farm.  MCCD tested Buckwheat, Oats, Peas, and Rye.

In the end, a final report was created by MCCD staff and reviewed by the team and disseminated to Northeast SARE, partners, and potential collaborators. 

Research results and discussion:

The Merrimack County Conservation District and its partners are committed to soil health practices, which includes using appropriate cover crops.  Luckily, this practice has increased in use with New Hampshire farmers with greater outreach to farmers, NRCS cost-share programs, and drivers from consumers looking for products that are sustainably grown.  One problem that MCCD noticed over the recent years is inconsistent availability of cover crops.  The question we set out to find was whether it was logical to put some acres into production for the creation of cover crop seeds for our own internal use and, possibly, as a second source of income for commercial or municipal farms.  Below are some key findings from this project:

  • There is Interest In Home Grown Seeds: If the cost is right and the timing works, there was interest in farmers to purchase home grown cover crop seeds. Availability and pricing were the deciding factors for potential customers.  There is also interest in buying other types of seeds such as pollinator seeds. Purchasing seeds for food production was also desired by potential customers.  Are there enough customers?  That is yet to be seen but this study is a start. 
  • Available Arable Land: In order for this to be a success, the first obstacle is available land. Arable land in New Hampshire is not readily available.  For those lands in production, farming for cover crop seeds may not be the best option financially. Other crops could be more profitable for the farmer.  Municipal lands, such as the Merrimack County farm, may be the best option for production of cover crop seeds as these entities do not want to compete with private sector farmers but also want to keep their land in production for the common good. 
  • Competition for Arable Land to Grow Artisanal Grains: Throughout this project, MCCD has communicated with Sarah Cox of Tuckaway Farm in Lee, NH, and Jessica Gorhan, food systems consultant, who are working on building a business plan for artisanal grains grown in New Hampshire. The desire to grow grains for human consumption versus cover cropping would desire the same arable land and, as stated in Finding #1, competition for land is difficult.
  • Potential for Shared Equipment and Processing Facilities with Grain Production: One of the most important aspect of this project was finding out what equipment and processing needs there are for seed production and how the private sector, municipalities, and the conservation district could come together in order to share the necessary infrastructure to boost seed production. Since seed production is not a major crop as of yet in New Hampshire, tying together similar sectors together in order to share processing capabilities is needed.  In order for this to occur, MCCD would be the entity to seek grant funds to accomplish these goals and work out an arrangement with an available facility to place the processing facility and possible storage, such as Merrimack County or underutilized existing commercial facilities.

Some of this infrastructure already exists.  MCCD has a no-till seed drill and a no-till corn planter. Several of the partnering farms have the necessary tractors and combines needed for harvesting.  Processing, bagging, and storage are the greatest challenges for moving forward and the greatest need for fundraising. 

  • Necessary to Meet Legal Requirements: Growing seeds, even if Variety Not Specified (VNS), has considerable legal requirements that involves the preservation of trademarks and intellectual property, labeling requirements, and testing for safety, especially if the grains go into the food system. In the Appendix, the document entitled “Legal Requirements” links the pertinent New Hampshire State Laws that dictate seed production and processing.  Federal regulations will also need to be further explored. 
  • Need for Quick, Accurate Testing of Grains: The University of Vermont has a certified testing laboratory for grains. In order to ensure the safety of the seeds produced, access to testing is necessary. A next step would be to create a relationship with UVM’s laboratory for testing.  NHTI- Concord’s Community College is also interested in how their Sustainable Agriculture program and current facilities could be used to assist in testing and certifying grains. 
  • Start with Easily Grown and Easily Processed Grains: As seen in the spreadsheet entitled “Cover Crop_Grain Varieties”, located in the Appendices, the seeds that would be most easily grown in our climate and processed would be barley, oats, rye, and wheat. In our Merrimack County test plots, rye grew the best. It was also the easiest to harvest and process the seeds.  Rye is also the chosen cover crop for the farmers in our local area.  Once the process is refined, other varieties could be added but, in the first phases, this study recommends building success with the crops that grow best, are easiest to harvest, and are readily desired by local agricultural producers. 
Research conclusions:

Growing cover crops for seeds is a possible growth sector for NH farms but it currently competes with other agricultural endeavors as the infrastructure for harvesting, washing, drying, bagging, and storing for seeds is not readily available at this time. In order to merit fundraising for this infrastructure, MCCD has communicated with individuals looking to grow seeds for value added baking products.  Equipment for cover crop seed production could be used for artisanal grains as long as all standards for food safety are met.  MCCD and partners will continue to work on this project with the following short-term next steps in 2023-2024 in mind:

  1. Further build collaborations with farmers and organizations seeking to grow grains in New Hampshire. The needs of both groups are synergistic and could help build capacity that benefits both goals.  This would include Sarah Cox and her research on artisanal grain production in New Hampshire, the consultant working on that project, Jessica Gorhan, and members of the Northeast Grain Hub. 
  2. Create a state-wide meet-up/ conference based on this idea to secure the necessary number of people needed to make buying the infrastructure necessary to share equipment and resources. MCCD intends to collaborate with NHTI- Concord’s Community College and Sanborn Mill Farm in order to conduct this conference.
  3. Begin writing grants to fund the necessary equipment needed to wash, dry, bag, and store seeds. Some equipment, such as combines, are owned by local farmers who can be contracted to complete that work. 
  4. Work with NHTI- Concord’s Community Colleges Sustainable Agriculture students to look at the necessities of building a testing laboratory on campus that could meet the testing needs of potential seed growers.


Participation Summary
8 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: NHTI- Concord's Community College has worked with MCCD on this project and this topic has been the subject of class discussions and potential proposed student research in the future.

Participation Summary:

163 Farmers participated
3 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

As the beneficiaries of the endeavor, the farmers in Merrimack County was the key audience of outreach efforts.  Merrimack County Conservation District (MCCD) has an established network of farms throughout the county.  The primary way that MCCD distributes information to this network is through MailChimp newsletters, to which there are currently 243 subscribers.  Throughout the project, MCCD communicated with local agricultural producers through the MailChimp e-newsletters, through our print newsletter Conservation News, through survey distribution, and through individual interviews.   

Surveys were also created, disseminated, and reviewed by the team related to farmer interest in the program and market interest in the program. MCCD staff also outreached to potential collaborating farms through individual interviews and outreach at local farmers' markets.  

NHTI- Concord's Community College has worked with MCCD on this project and this topic has been the subject of class discussions and potential proposed student research in the future.

In addition to the originally proposed project, MCCD conducted test plots at the Merrimack County Farm in order to assess growing capacity at the farm.  MCCD tested Buckwheat, Oats, Peas, and Rye.  This activity served as an educational opportunity for MCCD and the County of Merrimack, NH, farm who gained knowledge and skills in growing cover crops for seed.  

Education was also provided with soil testing that occurred as MCCD staff discussed the results of the soil tests and discussed recommendations made related to the soil sample reports.  

In the end, a final report was created by MCCD staff reviewed by the team and disseminated to Northeast SARE, partners, and potential collaborators. 

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:
  • Knowlege related to the growing of cover crops for seeds.
  • Knowledge related to the equipment needed related to the growing of cover crops for seeds.
  • Knowledge about soil health and soil testing.
  • Knowledge about potential new markets.
  • Knowledge about other seed growing markets, such as for artisanal grains.  
  • Knowledge of resources available from the Merrimack County Conservation District and UNH Cooperative Extension.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

The current outcome for this project is a blueprint as to where to go next.  These next steps are collaborative, such as joining forces with movements to grow more grains in NH for local food production, and financial, grant writing and fundraising for equipment and testing that can be beneficial to NH's agricultural producers.

As of this date, MCCD has not applied for any grants to build infrastructure, but this is in the Plan of Work for 2023 and 2024.  The biggest hurdle, finding a location in order to situate infrastructure, is solved as the County of Merrimack, NH, farm still expresses an interest in pursuing this idea for the benefit of Merrimack County agricultural producers.  

Another positive project outcome is the growing collaboration of agricultural entities amongst farms and service providers in Merrimack County and statewide.  

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Covid caused a lot of issues.  Every time the team aimed to meet together, which is a great way to share ideas, another Covid wave hit.  Labor shortages also made it difficult for farmers to take time to attend meetings.  We also feel like participants were getting weary of Zoom meetings.  Would we change our methods?  Probably not but we missed the full breadth of group-think problem solving, expertise, and greater collaboration because of Covid and labor shortages.  MCCD believes it got most of the information needed to move onto the next steps, but we look forward to getting people together for larger trainings and discussions in 2023-2024.

Information Products

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.