January 06, 2022

Understanding Cover Crops: The Basics & Their Benefits

by Sara Wensley

Director, Growth and Marketing

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Understanding Cover Crops: The Basics & Their Benefits
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Cover crops are a critical tool for farmers looking to prevent soil and water loss, increase soil fertility and organic matter, and even sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Soil is the key medium for conveying water and nutrients to crops’ roots, making it as crucial to successful farming as any other resource. And with large-scale soil degradation playing out across the world – a result of chemical-intensive agricultural practices, erosion, and climate change – soil’s fundamentality is only becoming clearer by the day. This has left the agriculture industry searching for solutions.

One solution that’s gaining popularity is regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture entails using nature-based methods to restore the health of soils and farm ecosystems. These methods, such as cover cropping, minimizing tillage, and crop rotations, can improve nutrient cycling and even sequester atmospheric carbon into the soil.

Let’s dive into the first of these methods today: cover cropping.

We’ll explain what cover crops are, explore their many benefits, and take a look at how this method of farming can impact your investment in the long run.

What Are Cover Crops?

Crops produced for commercial value, also known as “cash crops”, often come to mind when one pictures a farm. These crops include row crops, like corn and soybeans, as well as permanent crops, like citrus and nut trees.

Cover crops, on the other hand, are plants that are used to cover bare soil, rather than for the purpose of being harvested. ​Examples of these crops include mustard, alfalfa, rye, buckwheat, radish, and more. Oftentimes, cover crops are grown during the off-season after harvesting the cash crop, but they can also be planted concurrently with cash crops.

Cover crops’ primary job is to enhance the soil. More specifically, cover crops can improve topsoil structure and water retention, increase soil organic matter, and sequester carbon into the soil. Cover crops can also help suppress weeds and control pests and diseases.

What Are The 3 Main Benefits Of Cover Crops?

1. They Improve Soil Structure And Water Retention

Cover crops provide a protective layer that can be used to reduce erosion, improve soil structure, and promote water retention. Cover crops’ leaves, which cover the bare soil, can reduce the impact of rain on the soil’s surface. This protection helps to reduce topsoil loss and therefore, nutrient loss.

Cover crops’ roots, on the other hand, create pores in the soil, allowing water to filter deep into the ground. Cover crops’ roots can be used to improve soil structure and stability, in turn, minimizing soil compaction or erosion.

2. They Increase Soil Organic Matter and Fertility

During each growing season, cash crops will pull nutrients out of the soil; after the harvest, these nutrients need to be replenished. For decades, conventional farmers have relied on synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides to return these nutrients to their soils. Cover cropping, however, can achieve the same results, without the unintended environmental impacts.

In addition to preventing soil erosion and water runoff, cover crops can store nutrients until the next growing season, when a new set of crops are planted. Over time, cover crops can actually increase organic matter in the soil, leading to increased nutrient holding capacity in the long run. Many cover crops can also “fix” nitrogen into soils, meaning they can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and return it to the soil.

3. They Control Pests and Diseases

Cover crops can be implemented to help manage pests by providing a more stable habitat for beneficial insects. At the same time, these crops can serve as “trap crops,” acting as a host for harmful insects, diseases, and nematodes. Cover crops can also help to suppress weeds, as both will compete for light and nutrients.

The Long-Term Impact of Cover Crops

Overall, emphasizing organic and nature-based farming methods like cover cropping has the potential to drive agriculture toward sustainability at scale.

Farmers today are becoming increasingly impacted by warming temperatures and climate-related weather events. At the same time, however, agriculture and the extensive global food system account for between 11 and 19 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, or a third of all global emissions.

Research shows that by implementing sustainable farming methods, agricultural land could sequester 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of the annual emissions of 64 coal-fired power plants.

This means farmers can go from one of the largest carbon emitters to one of the largest carbon solutions.

The Bottom Line

Cover crops are a critical tool for farmers looking to prevent soil and water loss, increase soil fertility and organic matter, and even sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

From an investment standpoint, cover crop systems can help minimize reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, while preventing water waste and soil erosion. In turn, farmers can reduce their costs and increase their profits, meaning better returns for both themselves and investors.

In addition to increasing operational efficiency, sustainably managing farmland can also reinforce the land’s value over time. As farmers navigate a growing population amid increasingly scarce natural resources, they will be asked to produce more food on the same amount of land. The farms up to the task will be those with healthy soils and ample water, and will be worth more over time.

By investing in farmland through FarmTogether, investors are directly funding the upgrades necessary for farmers to shift from conventional farming to sustainable farming, and in turn, sharing in the rewards of cash income, capital appreciation, and the satisfaction of helping to preserve our food supply for generations to come.

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Disclaimer: FarmTogether is not a registered broker-dealer, investment advisor or investment manager. FarmTogether does not provide tax, legal or investment advice. This material has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only. You should consult your own tax, legal and investment advisors before engaging in any transaction.

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