Building resilience to extreme rainfall events: cover crop-based reduced tillage strategies for diversified organic vegetable farms

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $199,534.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Rue Genger
University of Wisconsin-Madison


  • Agronomic: clovers, grass (misc. perennial), rye, vetches
  • Vegetables: cabbages, cucurbits, peppers


  • Crop Production: cover crops, cropping systems, no-till, strip tillage
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: indicators, soil stabilization, strip cropping
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent because of climate change. In the Upper Midwest, climate models predict increased frequency of heavy and prolonged rainfall events. Extreme rainfall erodes soil, interferes with timely fieldwork, and reduces crop yields. Increasing cover crops and reducing tillage are production strategies that keep soil in place, sustain and enhance soil health, and ultimately increase farm resilience. The project “Building resilience to extreme rainfall events: Cover crop-based reduced tillage strategies for diversified organic vegetable farms” will develop a farmer-led learning community focused on reducing tillage, facilitate data collection and sharing among farms that are experimenting with reduced tillage techniques, and will conduct a replicated on-farm trial using living aisles and testing cover crop termination techniques that are appropriate for organic systems and do not rely on tillage.

    Conversations with organic vegetable farmers in our region confirm that while they are keenly aware of the damage tillage can do and have a strong interest in improving soil quality and water infiltration rates through reducing tillage, they are at a loss as to how to control weeds, terminate cover crops, and maintain vegetable yields without tillage.  This proposal builds on their long-standing experience with cover crops to develop no-till techniques that can be used in rotation with crops like potatoes and carrots where soil disturbance will likely always be required, at least for harvest.

    This project centers farmer expertise and innovation, supporting experimentation and facilitating peer learning through a farmer Community of Practice (CoP) focused on cover crop-based reduced tillage. The online farmer CoP will share strategies, approaches and outcomes of reduced tillage and cover cropping in vegetable production, and a group of farmer cooperators will track and share indicators of system resilience in their on-farm tests of reduced tillage. Through the CoP, we will produce case studies of how innovative vegetable farmers in the Upper Midwest are adapting to climate change and survey vegetable farmer knowledge, implementation and barriers to using reduced tillage strategies. We will partner with farmers to trial promising reduced tillage strategies for production of three different vegetable crops, emphasising cover crop termination techniques that preserve residues as mulch and are suitable for small scale organic farms, and producing regionally-relevant data to inform farmer decisions. Through this project, we will support and multiply the innovative potential of a community with intimate knowledge of the food production systems on which we all rely.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Farmer learning outcomes are increased knowledge of cover crop and reduced tillage strategies for small-scale, diversified organic vegetable production, how success of these strategies may be affected by multiple environmental and production factors, and familiarity with the equipment and skills needed to implement these strategies. Action outcomes are: increased farmer interactions through peer learning groups, greater experimentation with cover crop and reduced tillage strategies in vegetable production, and adoption of successful strategies. These outcomes will increase resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, increasing farm profitability, protecting environmental quality and natural resources, and improving farm community quality of life.

    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.