Fall-Planted Cover Crops in Western Washington: A Model for Sustainability Assessment
1. Determine the biological and socio-economic value of fall-planted cover crops with regard to nitrogen conservation and wildlife habitat enhancement.
2. Encourage adoption of cover crop practices by farmers through increased farmer-to-farmer responsibility for education and applied research.
3. Increase the understanding and appreciation of the value of fall-planted cover crops among members of the non-farming public.
4. Develop and test new mechanisms for strengthening partnerships between the agricultural community and environmental groups.
Cooperators from the Skagit Valley were recruited to test the value of nitrogen recovered from fall-planted cover crops that were incorporated in the spring. The on-farm experiment was based on research conducted at the WSU Mount Vernon Research Unit, which showed that cover crops planted in early September could accumulate up to 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre. This research also indicated that when cover crops were incorporated into the soil in the spring, nitrogen concentrations in the soil increased in May and June. Cash crops used in the on-farm experiment were cucumbers and potatoes.
Volunteers interested in natural resource conservation worked with WSU staff to determine how winter field cover influences bird habitat. An informal survey was developed, and the volunteers interviewed farmers and expert bird watchers. In addition to gathering information about cover crops and bird habitat, the interviews yielded significant information as to how farmers and non-farmers might increase communication and understanding through cooperating on wildlife habitat issues of mutual concern. A fact sheet discussing the findings of the interviews is in the process of publication.
An educational video was produced to educate selected non-farm audiences about farmers’ environmental stewardship efforts, and the value of cover cropped fields to wildlife and to the community. The video will also be used to motivate crop producers to add fall-planted cover crops to their management systems. Experiences and attitudes of farmers and environmentally-concerned citizens about fall-planted cover crops are an integral part of the message. Recently completed, the video has been reviewed by two groups who were very enthusiastic about its usefulness.
In a preliminary phase of the video development, approximately thirty interviews were conducted to gather insights about farmer and non-farmer attitudes, experiences and perceptions concerning agricultural stewardship. The Skagit Community Agriculture Study yielded significant information about how farmers and non-farmers view each other, and how they view the future of agriculture in the Skagit Valley. Interviewees were selected from this pool to participate in video taped interviews. Preparation of a fact sheet is in process to present the findings and conclusions of the Skagit Community Agriculture Study.
Skagit County government contributed funds for the production of two other educational videos. One, for home gardeners, discusses gardening and landscaping practices that protect water quality. The other, for small acreage farmers with livestock, discusses best management practices related to stream bank, manure and mud management.
In order to promote public understanding of the role of agriculture in environmental stewardship, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival’s 1997 brochure contained a section titled “Cooperative Efforts By Farmers To Enhance The Environment.” Over 300,000 copies of the brochure were distributed to festival attendees from throughout the Pacific Northwest.
A fifteen-member focus group, involved in previous research and education on nitrate leaching, helped develop the objectives of this grant and the on-farm experiment design. The group continues their informal involvement, for example by reviewing and guiding the direction of a new project aimed at enhancing communication and understanding between the farm and non-farm sectors in the community.
An Ag/Environment Group, consisting of some of the original nitrate leaching focus group members, was formed in early 1996. This group is exploring ways to strengthen partnerships between the agricultural community, consumers and environmental interest groups in the Skagit Valley. The group is made up of farmers, representatives from environmental and farmland preservation organizations, and university research and extension personnel. The group expressed a need for more insight into the attitudes and perceptions that Skagit Valley farm and non-farm communities have about each other. The Skagit County Community Agriculture Study was one outcome.
A new WSU research and education facility is being planned for Mount Vernon. Research and extension faculty and the public are jointly exploring how the facility might foster improved communication and collaboration between the agricultural community and environmental, consumer and other non-farm groups.
In order to determine the cost to farmers of establishing and managing fall-planted cover crops, farmers monitored the cost of seed, and the cost of their time and equipment for ground preparation and planting, and for incorporating cover crops in the spring. The cost of establishing cover crops in the Skagit Valley averages about $40 per acre. Five farmers participated in the study. Each planted three cover crops that are frequently used in this area—cereal rye, white oats and winter wheat.
On a one-year basis, this research did not find evidence that cover crop incorporated in the spring reduced the amount of fertilizer inputs needed for vegetable crops. Informal farmer discussion based on long term experience, and the findings of the Skagit Community Agriculture Study, provide evidence that refutes this finding. Farmers who have used cover crops for many years attest to the long term value of investing in cover crops.
Farmer Adoption and Direct Impact
Some farmers have reduced nitrogen fertilizer rates for potatoes, resulting in reduced risk of negative environmental impacts from excess nitrogen fertilizer and reduced production costs.
This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 1998 reporting cycle.