Improving the Capacity of Pea Cover Crops to Enhance Soil Health

Project Overview

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2021: $196,658.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Eric Bishop-von Wettberg
University of Vermont


  • Agronomic: peas (field, cowpeas), vetches


  • Crop Production: cover crops, plant breeding and genetics

    Proposal abstract:

    Integrating peas into cropping systems is a sustainable farming practice that helps promote soil health and farm profitability. Despite these benefits, little research has gone into directly improving traits that make pea an effective cover crop. The majority of field pea research has focused on comparing field pea as a cover crop to other species, with little attention to assessing differences between field pea varieties in traits that affect the yield of subsequent crops such as soil nutrient accumulation. This is a shortcoming because some pea varieties are likely more effective cover crops than others. To make pea cover cropping more attractive for farmers, we need to identify superior pea cover crop varieties. As a result, our project will answer two plaguing questions in cover crop research:  1. Do novel pea cover crop varieties improve farm profitability and sustainability in the Northeast?  2. Do novel pea cover crop varieties differ in cover cropping traits, such as beneficial microbe recruitment, soil health improvement, and increasing subsequent crop yields? To address these questions, we will screen 108 novel pea varieties with genomic information. These varieties were strategically selected from wilds, landraces, and under-used modern pea varieties to capture a wide range of phenotypic diversity. The varieties will be initially screened in a greenhouse setting to look at the genetic basis of differences in microbe recruitment, soil health improvement, and increasing yields of a subsequently planted crop. This initial screening will allow us to identify a subset of varieties (~10) that will have the broadest on-farm impact. The selected varieties will then be screened in a randomized complete block design with three replicates per variety in a farm setting, for agronomic and economic performance. More specifically, they will be evaluated on three on-farm sites that vary in soil type for beneficial-microbe recruitment, soil health improvement, and increasing subsequent crop yields. Additionally, we will perform a cost-benefit analysis to quantify the economic effect these varieties have on farm profitability. Lastly, farmer engagement is critical for the success of our project, farmers will be substantially involved during the entirety of the project. For instance, during the conceptualization of this project, we had meetings and sent out surveys to farmers to gather their opinion on field pea cover crops. Their responses, such as, how they best gather new farming information and what traits they are looking for in a field pea have been incorporated into the project. Furthermore, farmers will be consulted throughout to make sure our research is applicable to the farming community and during the selection of varieties that make it to on-farm trials. Collectively, we believe our project can profoundly benefit the Northeast farming community by lowering hurdles to cover cropping.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The project objective is to identify novel pea cover crop varieties that improve farm profitability and sustainability in the Northeast. To accomplish this goal, we will be screening novel pea varieties that are currently not readily available to farmers, such as wild, landraces, and underutilized-modern cultivars. We will screen varieties for the recruitment of beneficial microbes, soil health improvement, increasing yields of subsequent crops, and their impact on farm profitability through a cost-benefit analysis. The results from this project will promote cover cropping in the Northeast by increasing the productivity and profitability of pea cover crops.

    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.