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Report from November’s Northeast Cover Crop Council meeting

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 December Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Masoud Hashemi, UMass Extension Professor, invited NOFA/Mass to send two representatives to participate in a recent meeting of the Northeast Cover Crop Council (NECCC) meeting. The event, held November 16-17 in Beltsville, MD, took place at the USDA National Agriculture Library and was attended by 36 folks representing land grants, extension, NRCS, members of the industry, farmers and non-profit farming organizations. Noah Kellerman, NOFA/Mass board member and farmer at Alprilla Farm in Essex, and I attended this inspiring event. 

I enjoy being at events where participants use every scrap of free time to discuss their craft and advance their knowledge. This was one of those kinds of events. With the help of SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), the organization that grants to sustainable agriculture projects and organization, there have been initiatives to set up cover crop councils all over the country. The Midwest Cover Crop Council is already in existence and providing services to farmers in the Midwest. Just as the NECCC is in its inception and infancy stage, there is a Southern Council being set up also. 

Led by a very competent California based facilitator, we spent the first day of the event getting to know each other, and determining drivers and constraints to cover crop adoption. We agreed that soil health and nutrition, climate change, farm viability, economic benefits and cost share programs are drivers. Complexity of using cover crops, management concerns of timing, shifts in tools needed and human resistance to change were identified as constraints. 

Next we moved to our strengths in cover crop implementation – passionate practitioners, a diverse network, that this is a practice that both organic and conventional farmers embrace and a willingness to share the mountains of research on the topic. Weaknesses articulated were less than ideal collaboration by government agencies, data gaps, geographic diversity, and supply and logistical weaknesses. 

Findings included the need for more systems based research (as opposed to single factor analysis) over many seasons, more collaboration between government agencies and non-profit farming orgs (like NOFA), better media outreach and PR, and for us to connect into the global cover crop movement. 

Next we set a list of tasks for the year ahead:

  • Establish a website
  • Develop a mechanism for external communications
  • Create and vet information to go out to the farming public
  • Produce a cover crop tool/calculator with intricate information that will help farmers find their zone, possibly their soil type, climactic conditions, and then be provided with updated information on which cover crops to use at what times of the year

Strategically, the NECCC hopes to become the source for cover crop use information in the Northeast and to be an organization where the diverse audiences of governmental organizations, industry, farmers and farming non-profits can share information for dissemination to the farming (and consuming) public. 

Thursday we met for half a day. We finalized the strategic plan, and after some discussion, decided that the best way to set up the board was with one member from each of the twelve states, generally made up of people who wanted to be on the board! It was a very interesting process. Because of the immense skill of the facilitator, we walked away from that conversation, and eventually the retreat itself, all with an openness and willingness to work across a lot of differences to further the implementation of cover crops in farming in the Northeast. 

As a final exercise for the day, we broke into five self-selecting groups to discuss goals for the next year. The five goals were these:

  • Cover crop breeding: do a needs assessment of what information is out there already, then work on multi-site experiments to fill the gaps
  • On-farm research: on the website, make it possible for farmers to connect with each other on new on-farm research projects, and set up some guidelines for farmers on how to conduct research
  • Tool and other resource development: build good partnerships between universities and private sector and farmers to produce the kinds of products that are lacking now for maximum implementation of cover crop strategies
  • A research project on seed quality and seed testing across the Northeast: work on cost and quality, and help farmers grow better seed with a goal toward certified seed
  • Development of a process for taking an idea to fruition on web tools: utilizing what web tools are out there already, and developing new open source web tools for practitioners who want to enhance the cover cropping experience
  • Building out the website with the following:
    • Compilation of seed sources
    • Calendar of appropriate events across the region
    • Listing of resource people, including state coordinators for general marketing, etc.
    • Listing of farmer resources

After two days of getting to know lots of great folks, I was a bit disappointed by the Beltsville Agricultural Resource Center (BARC), which we toured after the event was over. I realized that there is still a wide gap between organic and conventional management of soil and cover-cropping systems. But now NOFA is at least a part of the conversation, and it is clear that there are many commonalities that we share with the conventional agricultural community around the usage of cover crops in growing systems. 

I hope that the Northeast Cover Crop Council grows and thrives, and I look forward to being at least peripherally involved in its organizational development. I hope to be able to share myriad resources that will be of use to NOFA/Mass members from this collection of highly motivated and practiced individuals.

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