According to News Deeply, this ancient practice is slowly being revived, which is good for farmers and our food supply.
This spring in California several orchards around Solano and nearby counties sported a new look: lush carpets of mixed grasses growing as tall as 3ft beneath the trees’ bare branches. By summer the scene will change as farmers grow and harvest their nut crops, but the work of the grasses will continue unseen.
Cover cropping, an agricultural technique as old as dirt, is taking root in California. Used to enhance soil nutrition and improve the growth of plants, it fell out of favor after World War II when the practice was replaced by the use of chemical fertilizers.
Today just 5 percent of California growers are using cover crops – and 3 percent nationwide – but that’s likely to change.
Farmers have used off-season plantings for millennia to build soil and keep it from blowing or washing away. Like their predecessors, walnut and almond growers are using these seasonal noncash crops to hold in moisture and provide habitat.
Farmers are also returning to the practice to curb the effects of a changing climate. As hotter and drier conditions hit most of the state, Central Valley growers are planting grasses and legumes under their trees to increase the carbon and nitrogen in their soils. And as implementation of the state’s new drought-driven groundwater regulation approaches, they are testing the ability of cover crops to increase the amount of water stored in the ground that grows their nuts and vegetables.
“Folks are really thinking hard about where their water comes from, and they’re thinking about carbon, too – things that are new in terms of farming systems in relationship to the world,” said Wendy Rash, a district conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
She is part of a loose coalition of growers, scientists and conservationists working to expand the use of cover crops and identify the places where they can provide the greatest ecological benefit at the lowest cost to the farmer. Some are weighing the economic advantages and risks, some the potential for effecting agricultural policies.
Among these efforts is an ambitious project aimed at a seemingly incongruous goal: river restoration. The Freshwater Trust, a Portland-based conservation group, is designing a tool that will help monitor and track efforts to increase the health of water and soil at a landscape scale. It is based on the premise that cover crops help boost the water that goes into the ground, recharging the aquifer. Maximizing these groundwater reserves lessens the demand for surface water, which leaves more water for rivers. And more water in streams benefits fish and riparian species, said Erik Ringelberg, the Freshwater Trust’s California director.
“From a conservation perspective, that’s a win for us,” he said.