We have planted all of our open ground to cover crops this fall. Cover cropping is the practice of covering your fields or gardens with a living crop. It can be wheat, vetch, rye, peas, clover, and even weeds. The purpose is to maintain organic matter in the soil, which helps hold nutrients in the growing zone areas of the soil. Another purpose is to prevent erosion. Down here where it floods, a lot of bare soil can move around quickly, but ground that is covered rarely erodes. Also, the cover crop will take nutrients up into the growing plant and hold those nutrients all winter in the plant, preventing them from leaching away in the soil.
In particular, with our rainy winters, nutrients can migrate out of the upper six inches of soil and be lost. The loss of nutrients is a big deal because those nutrients represent lost money to the farmer and in the spring more fertilizer will need to be purchased to replace what nutrients leached away. But even more importantly, our environment is impacted when minerals are leached away and end up in rivers, streams, lakes, the ocean, and even work their way down to aquifers. And polluting our drinking waters with excessive agricultural chemicals and nutrients is not wise.
While farming can be a culprit for water table issues, in areas like the Puget Sound our urban neighbors have a huge impact with the use of lawn and garden fertilizers and chemicals. Sadly, agriculture usually gets targeted for this issue because a lot of the urban chemical use is upstream of farmers and is filtered through the flood plains on their way to the ocean. Another reason the regulators sometimes blame farmers for water pollution is because, quite frankly, farmers represent less votes (approximately 1% nationally) than urban corridors.
On our farm we plant cover crops so we can grow healthier food, prevent erosion and feed our soil microbiology in the spring. Without healthy soil, you can’t have healthy food. And if American’s health issues are an indication, American farmers should change their farming methods!
I think we could change the health of the American food supply by doing two simple things: first, start requiring labeling for GMO foods and secondly, before any farm subsidy is given out, the farmer needs to demonstrate that their soil fertility is being maintained by submitting soil samples. By doing these two things we would radically change the direction of our food supply for the better.