H2O Radio
Cover Crops
It’s harvest time for much of the country and also a time to plan for the season ahead. For a growing number of farmers, that will mean planting something called "cover crops"—plants that control erosion, conserve water, build healthy soils, and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides—all while maintaining yields. As H2O Radio reports, the "soil health movement" is shifting the ground beneath farmers' feet—for the better.

Pay Dirt: How Farmers Are Using Less Water, Avoiding Pesticides, and Building Healthy Soil—All While Maintaining or Increasing Yields

Brendon Rockey is a specialty potato farmer in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. On this warm, sunny, fall afternoon, he’s beaming with pride as I walk with him through his just-harvested fields. He's pleased with how they look and he feels he's going to be set up pretty nicely for his potato crop next spring.

It’s been a really good year for Rockey Farms. They have three massive warehouses filled top to bottom with fancy potatoes. They like growing what they call "the fun stuff"—potatoes with flavor. They grow reds, yellows, purples, and fingerlings—anything that’s a little unique. Their popular potatoes have names like "Nicola," "Benji," and "Harvest Moon" and they’re now being cleaned, sorted, and packaged before they ship off to restaurants and grocery stores coast to coast.

But things weren’t always this rosy. Ten years ago, this area was dry as a bone, which forced Brendon to totally change how he farmed his 500 acres. Looking back on it now, he says the drought was one of the best things that happened to the valley because it brought people together as a community, and it changed a lot of the farming practices for the positive.

At the time, he was growing barley and potatoes. But with limited water, he had to make a choice. He simply didn't have enough water to grow both cash crops, so he planted cover crops in place of the barely since it wasn't as economically sound.


Cover cropping is a conservation practice that has really taken off over the past decade. It's about growing plants like clover, chick pea, buckwheat, or rye to build healthy, productive soils that can suppress weeds, add nutrients as they decompose—and absorb more water. The next year when he planted his potato crop on that same field, he saw his water use go down. And as he began rotating his fields between cover crops and potatoes he found that overall he cut his water use by nearly half using about 12 inches of irrigation each year to grow potatoes, which is really low. Without the cover crop the year before he wouldn't have been able to farm with that little water.

It’s not like the plant suddenly needed less water. It just showed Brendon how much water was going to waste. So now when he irrigates he's able to put less water on his fields and can go longer in between irrigations. He's seen a higher infiltration rate in which the water goes right where it belongs, and the soil holds onto that water.

Another impressive benefit of cover crops is that as he enhanced his soil health, he reduced his dependence on pesticides and fertilizers. Brendon doesn't use any chemicals on his farm whatsoever. They're not spraying for weeds or insects. Actually, he’s trying to bring as many insects on to the farm as possible. In the middle of his potato field he's planted something he calls a flowering strip to create habitat for beneficial insects, which feed off the pollen and nectar. When it's in full bloom, he says it just buzzes. Those flowers will attract aphids that could really threaten his crop. As a matter of fact, he says when inspectors come out to look at his fields to measure any pesticide levels, he laughs telling them they have a greater chance of being stung by a bee than being exposed to something on his farm.

SteveEla_web While Brendon's practices may sound innovative, cover cropping is not new. It was how his grandfather farmed when he bought the property back in 1938. Back then they were using these practices because those were the tools that were available. They didn't have chemicals. They didn't have synthetic fertilizers. Somewhere along the line, he says, we got fooled into thinking chemicals and fertilizers were the answer, but in the process we destroyed our soils.

That’s a difficult history that Steve Ela, a fourth-generation fruit grower in western Colorado, knows all too well. For years he farmed with synthetic inputs, but sheer frustration drove him to make a complete paradigm shift. Now, he says, we're in a biological revolution. We were in a chemical revolution before, thinking chemicals were going to be the magic bullets. Talking with him at a Denver-area farmers market where he came to sell his apples, plums, and heirloom tomatoes, he explains that applying conventional fertilizers wasn’t giving him the results he wanted—or helping his soils.

He has a background (a master's degree) in soil science and tried everything he knew. He added more nitrogen, more phosphorus, more potassium, more micro-nutrients, but the trees weren’t jumping out of the ground. It really drove him to remember the old organic mantra that "a healthy soil feeds the tree."

Steve Ela So, unlike Brendon, who rotates his fields, Steve began planting cover crops right in between trees. He doesn't harvest the cover crops, he just mows them and leaves the mulch in place, putting organic matter in the soil. He say's it's amazing that within two weeks it's gone. It's gone because it's been broken down by bacteria and also because earthworms and nightcrawlers grab the organic matter and pull it down into the soil, making pathways for water and nutrients to get to the trees' roots.

Steve says that if he has a healthy soil that is dynamically breaking things down and releasing things it's a smorgasbord for the tree. And while cover crops put out the banquet, just how roots take up nutrients is something we're learning more about through university research. He says we're just at the tip of the iceberg in understanding the complexity of soil, and that makes for an exciting time in soil science: "We're realizing the black box of the soil," adding, "We know so little about it. It’s like the Amazon rainforest. When we first went to the Amazon there were all these new species. The soil beneath us is that same way."

This soil health movement is not just a Colorado phenomenon. According to a USDA Cover Crop Survey Report out last month, cover crop use across the country is steadily increasing and farmers are reporting higher yields—about two bushels more per acre depending on commodity. Overall, the survey found positive results, and those farmers who used cover crops to enhance their soil were likely to continue because they saw them as an investment in the future.

Thinking long-term is how both Brendon and Steve view their farms. It's not just about tomorrow. And it's not about yesterday. It's about the next year and five years down the road, and the cover crops are part of that. 💧


Sound Files

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The Fifth Annual Cover Crop Survey

The 2017 Cover Crop Survey, conducted by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the Conservation Technology Information Center was released September 15, 2017. From the abstract: "Cover crops are a hot topic in conservation agriculture. However, as evidenced by this report, they’re more than a buzzword today—farmers are using cover crops on a greater number of acres each year, and there is more and more momentum behind using cover crops to resist soil erosion and build soil health by improving a wide range of soil physical and biological properties. Each iteration of this survey brings new perspectives to light and gives more insights into the ways that farmers are using cover crops on their farms." Learn more.

Rockey Farms

Brothers Brendon and Sheldon Rockey are the third generation to manage Rockey Farms, Center, Colorado. They raise specialty potatoes and quinoa among fields of green manure, all cultivated in a biotic environment. Companion crops, animals, cover crops, and flowers replace synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. The farming system sustains yields, has greater water efficiency, and it supports a flourishing ecosystem encouraging beneficial insects, soil microbes, and carbon cycling. Rockey Farms was awarded the 2014 National Potato Council Environmental Stewardship Award and the 2011 Colorado Association of Conservation Districts Farming Division Conservationist of the Year Award for its practices. Learn more.

Ela Family Farms

Located on Rogers Mesa in western Colorado, Ela Family Farms is a certified organic, fourth-generation fruit orchard. Ela Family Farms takes pride in growing deliciously tree-ripened cherries, peaches, pears, plums, apples, and heirloom tomatoes. In addition, our jams, jellies, fruit butters, dried fruits, applesauce, and apple cider are made exclusively from the organic fruits they grow. Learn more.


Masthead photo:
Brendon Rockey, Rockey Farms, Center, CO
Credit: Frani Halperin,
H2O Media, Ltd.

Music: "That Upbeat Feeling," Alumo | Creative Commons

Published: October 23, 2017
© Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

Journalism About Water and the Environment
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