Final report for WESP19-01
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.
- 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).
- 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:
- Share focus group and survey results;
- Present current region-wide and sub-region-specific cover crop research;
- 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;
- Facilitate session to create “hot shot” teams tackling emerging themes, barriers, and outreach opportunities in each sub-region;
- Field tour demonstrating local cover cropping practices.
- Build the WCCC presence by advertising the WCCC listserv, developing a quarterly newsletter, and social media platforms (October 2019 to project end date).
- 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).
- Increase cover crop adoption across the Western region (throughout project).
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 & Outreach Initiatives
To understand cover crop adoption rates, barriers, and participation in incentive programs.
Survey producers and ag professionals in the region covered by Western SARE.
The survey was completed in the fall of 2021. We received 894 usable surveys from 13 states, Guam, and Micronesia. The results have been evaluated and presented at two regional conferences associated with this project. Also we have submitted an article to The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation which is in its second edit.
To use smaller groups to understand regional cover crop adoption rates, barriers, and participation in incentive programs.
The original plan was to develop focus groups at in person meetings to take a more focused look at cover crop issues in the region and create hot shot teams of Extension, agency staff, and producers to develop programming around the identified areas. The in-person meetings did not happen but an attempt was made during the virtual meetings to accomplish the same task using breakout rooms in the Zoom platform. For myriad reasons the result was not the same as a proper focus group, however, six themes were identified:
Cover crop adoption in rotational cropping systems
Cover crops for forage and grazing
Soil health and cover crops (identified in both meetings)
Challenges (of growing cover crops) in the arid west
Cover crops in berries, orchards, and horticultural crops
Below is a list of fact sheets and summaries which compile evaluative summaries from the various conference and field tours conducted.
Breakout session summaries next steps
PNW whole evaluation factsheet
Intermountain whole evaluation factsheet
At the end of this project, we sent a survey to everyone who attended either the Intermountain or PNW virtual conference or the California tour. The main purpose of the survey was to see if people were increasing their use of cover crops and what barriers were preventing them from doing so. Some of the highlights include:
- Since 2020, 49% had increased cover crop acres (n=79)
- The acreage categories with the highest cover crop plantings were either <5 acres or >100 acres (n=78)
- Ninety-two percent of respondents (n=226) had attended cover crop webinars (59%) and field tours (33%) in past two years. This is probably not too surprising considering the survey was sent to people who had attended one or the other.
- In the last two years, 52% of respondents had implemented a cover cropping practices they learned about at an educational event. (n=86)
- Most of the respondents (91%) shared what they learned with others, most with less than 10 people. (N=44%)
- The greatest barrier to cover crop adoption appears to be cost of seed and water availability. Forty-one percent indicated cost incentives would help them adopt the practices (n=71)
The survey report is attached below so readers can see the wide variety of individual responses to the open ended questions.
Educational & Outreach Activities
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 where the participants were 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.
In February and March 2021 a five session virtual conference was conducted to focus on the Pacific Northwest sub-region. There were four 1 1/2 hour webinars and a final session where the participants were broken into three focus groups to focus on identified priority areas. There were 214 participants in the first session, 185 in the second, 145 in the third, and 87 in the fourth. The break out groups were separate Zoom meetings and the total attendance was apparently not collected. For both conference, non of the seven break out sessions has more than 10 participants so the total participation was less than 70.
The sub-regional conferences were recorded and can be found on the Western Cover Crop Council website: https://westerncovercrops.org/videos-webinars/from-the-ground-up-series/
In the summer of 2022 a third conference was held in California. The organizer chose to do a one day traveling tour of the region which included tours of various cover cropping systems in the Sacramento Valley. Lunch and dinner gave the opportunity for presentations. There were 49 attendees. The results of the evaluation are in that section of this report.
We were able to get out of the Pacific Northwest and reach producers in Hawaii by collaborating with University of Hawaii faculty and Oahu RC&D staff. Here is the report of their program:
On October 25, 2022, Oʻahu RC&D organized a cover crop outreach workshop at Hui O Makaʻainana on Kauai targeting producers using rotational wetland production systems for taro, an important indigenous food crop for Hawaiʻi. In order to conduct effective cover crop outreach, the event included presentations by Dr. Koon Hui Wang and Dr. Ted Radovich of UH-CTAHR, Q&A and collaborative design of a cover crop demonstration planting tailored to the unique coastal conditions and challenges of the host site, its wetland taro production system, and farm management goals. The workshop agenda covered the process of selecting cover crop species and cultivars appropriate throughout the year, estimating the seeding rate needed for the demo plot, annual cost for the seed, a plan for establishing the seed by flooding the wetland field using the existing irrigation system, estimated labor cost for prepping the demo plot and seeding, and estimated labor cost for maintaining and terminating the cover crop. The outreach event targeted a group of producers that are participating in a Soil Health Cohort and was attended by 15 commercial farmers, in addition to the three speakers. An additional three farmers from the host site attended the farmer-to-farmer discussion that followed the workshop. Demonstrating the process for designing an annual cover crop system for a wetland taro system is important to accelerating the adoption of this soil health practice for taro farmers in Hawaii.
Fallowing is an important component of a wetland taro rotation and as part of the workshop, a farm map and crop plan were included to assist in determining an annual schedule to replace the fallow period with a cover crop. As part of the design process, the cost and practicality of using a cover crop treatment versus the application of crustacean meal was explored as alternatives to address the farm management goal of suppressing nematode pests, which negatively impact taro yield and crop quality. The design process involved the farm manager working closely with Dr. Koon Hui Wang, a local expert in Nematode Ecology, and Sustainable Pest Management, Soil and Agroecosystem Health Management. Nematode suppressive traits provide a strong incentive for farmers to cover crop immediately prior to the cash crop. However, the salt and limited sunlight hours experienced at the demo site during the winter season made it impractical for the farm manager to use cover crops as a pest management strategy during this season. The farm management goal of sustaining planting and harvests year-round required the use of crustacean meal prior to winter time plantings to address nematode pressure.
A colleague in Oregon was hired through a sub-award to Oregon State University to compile the survey data from the Pacific Northwest virtual conference held in 2021. The resulting fact sheets are attached to this report.
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
The large WSARE regional survey had the SARE logo and listed SARE as a partner with UI and OSU. Marketing materials for the regional webinars and tours have SARE logo. At the beginning of each session of the Intermountain and PNW Sub-Regional conferences I acknowledged the funding for the program was provided by SARE. I requested colleagues in California and Hawaii acknowledge SARE as the funding supporter for those programs.