Developing the Western Cover Crop Council and Promoting the Regenerative Agriculture Movement through Cover Crops and Human Health

Progress report for WESP19-01

Project Type: Enhanced State Grants
Funds awarded in 2019: $100,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2021
Host Institution Award ID: G171-20-W7505
Grant Recipients: University of Idaho; Oregon State University
Region: Western
State: Idaho
Principal Investigator:
Steven Hines
University of Idaho
Co-Investigators:
Lauren Golden
University of Idaho
Nick Andrews
Oregon State University
Dr. Monica Hubbard
Boise State University
Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell
University of California, Davis, Department of Plant Sciences
Marion Murray
Utah State University
Justin O'Dea
Washington State University
Clare Sullivan
Oregon State University
Matt Yost
Utah State University
Tara Zimmerman
Washington State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

In summer 2018, the country’s newest cover crop council - the Western Cover Crop Council (WCCC) - was formed. The WCCC was born from a need for farmers and agricultural professionals to have more information on cover crop research and use in the Western Region. Similar to the established Midwest, Southern, and Northeast Cover Crop Councils, the WCCC aims to significantly increase the use of cover crops in western agricultural systems. To achieve this goal, the WCCC needs information on regional rates of cover crop adoption and barriers to adoption. The WCCC also needs to build a strategic network of agricultural professionals conducting cover crop outreach/research and farmers using cover crops.

In addition to being an effective agroecological practice that enhances soil biodiversity, new research is showing that cover cropping also has important implications for human gut health (1). Therefore, an additional focus of this proposal is to engage researchers, health practitioners, and food businesses that seek to create nutrient-dense, microbiologically active foods through regenerative soil health practices, such as cover cropping. This proposal will gather data on cover crop adoption and barriers to adoption by western farmers through focus groups and a survey, use the data collected to inform cover crop outreach and research, build the WCCC network of cover crop-focused agricultural professionals and farmers, use the WCCC network to coordinate outreach and research, foster cover crop business opportunities for farmers, and, ultimately, increase use of cover crops.

*Note: This is a regional application and all citations attached.

Project Objectives:
  1. Focus groups and a survey of western farmers to identify 1) cover crop adoption rates, 2) factors associated with adoption, 3) barriers to adoption, 4) rates of participation in federal incentive programs, 5) opportunities to promote adoption, and 6) outreach and research gaps (October 2019-April 2020).
  2. Host four sub-regional meetings to unite the network of cover crop outreach/research efforts throughout the West in the following climatic zones: Intermountain West, Maritime PNW, Inland PNW, and the Southwest. Meeting participants will include agricultural professionals involved in cover crop outreach/research and farmers. Two meetings will be held in Summer 2020 and two in Spring 2021. A fifth meeting will be held remotely via webinar to link Alaska, Hawaii, and the Islands with the WCCC network, paving the way for future in-person conferences. Each meeting will have the following agenda items:
    1. Share focus group and survey results;
    2. Present current region-wide and sub-region-specific cover crop research;
    3. Facilitate discussion among scientists, health practitioners, farmers, and food business leaders on regenerative agriculture as it relates to cover crops and food market opportunities for farmers;
    4. Facilitate session to create “hot shot” teams tackling emerging themes, barriers, and outreach opportunities in each sub-region;
    5. Field tour demonstrating local cover cropping practices.
  3. Build the WCCC presence by advertising the WCCC listserv, developing a quarterly newsletter, and social media platforms (October 2019 to project end date).
  4. Work directly with the cover crop seed industry to understand their needs and opportunities. One of the sub-regional meetings will specifically focus on the seed industry and connecting the needs of farmers with the industry research (Summer 2020 to project end date).
  5. Increase cover crop adoption across the Western region (throughout project).
Introduction:

Although cover crops are receiving more attention from farmers, researchers, policy makers, and media, a 2012 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census indicates that less than 5% (10.3 million acres) of the nation’s total row crop land is planted in cover crops (20,21). Much of the current knowledge on cover crop adoption comes from SARE and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) Cover Crop survey. However, in the final (2017) SARE/CTIC Cover Crop survey, less than 50 survey respondents (out of 1,770) were from the West, and 80% of respondents were commodity crop farmers, primarily corn, soybean and wheat. The Western Region hosts different cropping and climatic systems and cover crop species and management practices. Thus, it may not be appropriate for cover crop adoption outreach to be primarily based on adoption rates and barriers specific to midwestern farmers as it is now. What’s more, the cover crop seed industry is prominent in the West and is the main producer of Brassica, clover, and annual ryegrass cover crop varieties. As this proposal looks to increase cover crop adoption in the West, there are opportunities to develop cover crop seed production tailored to western farmer.

Awareness is growing that soil biodiversity affects human health by suppressing disease-causing soil organisms and providing clean air and water. Recently, a connection to the nutritional quality of food and human gut microbiota was found (22,23,24,25,26). Human gut microbiome diversity has been shown to impact metabolism, immune development, intestinal homeostasis, and brain processes and behavior (27).  For example, people in urban environments are more prone to inflammatory disorders like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and allergic diseases, attributed to a lack of soil microbiological functions. Transmission of gut microbiological organisms comes directly from the environment and land management practices (28). A unique approach to this proposal involves linking cover crop users, health practitioners, scientists, and food businesses to innovative new market opportunities for sustainably produced food. These new market opportunities will benefit farmers by enhancing their income and quality of life, and by developing a new motivational linkage for adopting cover crops. Examples of new market opportunities that are starting to shape the food system include pulse powders and pea hull fiber foods, used in sauces, cereals, and baked goods to add flavor, texture, fiber, and protein.

Within the WSARE database, over 30 proposals have focused on cover crop research and outreach since 2013. This proposal will engage these researchers as the WCCC network is developed.

In summary, we propose to gather data on cover crop adoption and barriers to adoption by western farmers through focus groups and a survey, use the data collected to inform cover crop outreach and research, build the WCCC network of cover crop-focused agricultural professionals and farmers, use the WCCC network to coordinate outreach and research, foster cover crop business opportunities for farmers, and, ultimately, increase use of cover crops.

Education

Educational approach:

Surveys

Webinar Conferences

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Focus Groups and Survey of the WSARE Region
Objective:

To understand cover crop adoption rates, barriers, and participation in incentive programs.

Description:

Survey producers and ag professionals in the region covered by WesternSARE.

 

Outcomes and impacts:

The survey is finished and we are evaluating the data

 

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Study circle/focus groups
2 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Other educational activities: A program assistant was hired in the spring of 2020. A survey was developed and deployed to all areas covered by Western SARE. The survey instrument was used to gather input from producers, Extension, Government Agency, and NGOs on the barriers to adoption of cover crops and educational programming needed to assist with cover crop adoption. The survey was made available in the spring and we closed access in June. The program assistant has spent the summer and fall 2020 compiling the data received from over 800 surveys. Some very general findings have been developed but today (1/8/2021) we will start looking deeper at the data and developing a plan for writing the findings and submitting those to appropriate journals.
A major objective of the grant was to have at least three conferences throughout the WSARE region to introduce and develop the Western Cover Crops Council. Covid-19 certainly put a wrinkle in those plans but did not stop us. In December 2020 and January 2021 the first sub-regional conference was held for the Intermountain sub-region. It was made up of three-1 1/2 hour webinars and a final session (to be held 1/14/21) where the participants will be broken into four focus groups to dig deep into four identified priority areas. Our goal of the focus groups is to come away with actionable project ideas that the WCCC can focus on and provide leadership for Extension or other agencies as those groups work to help producers find ways to overcome barriers identified in focus groups and the survey. One of the sessions was a virtual field tour and cover crop projects from Oregon, Idaho, and Utah were highlighted. There were 120 participants in first session, 93 in the second, and 66 in the third. The focus -group session will take place next week. The sessions have been recorded for YouTube and are housed with University of Idaho. There have been 145 combined views of sessions one and two to date.
Starting in February a second sub-regional virtual conference will take place over six sessions focused on the Maritime PNW region. Additionally there are plans for two more conferences, one in the California/Desert Southwest area and one for the Lower Rocky Mountain States. We hope to offer these two as live conferences. We will have to request a grant extension to do so however and that will be done in the near future.

Participation Summary:

4 Extension
2 NRCS
1 Others

Project Outcomes

Additional Outcomes:

We just completed the first of the sub-regional conference a couple weeks ago. We have evaluated the survey data from that program yet. Each sub regional conference will have a final session where participants are broken into separate zoom meetings to identify topics and attempt to form working groups. This was to be done in person when this project was planned. After the first sub-regional meeting we found forming working groups from people who don't know each other meeting virtually is quite difficult. We will have to work on how to evaluate whether groups formed successfully as the project continues.

Face of SARE

Face of SARE:

The large WSARE regional survey had the SARE logo and listed SARE as a partner with UI and OSU. Marketing materials for the regional webinar conference have SARE logo. At the beginning of each session of the Intermountain Sub-Regional conference I acknowledged the funding for the program was provided by SARE. I will make sure the other sub regional conferences yet to happen do the same.

800 Farmers received information about SARE grant programs and information resources
400 Ag professionals received information about SARE grant programs and information resources
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.