Save Farmers: Eat Your Cowpeas and Millet???

Cowpea plants flowering and starting to make seed - best time to kill for max benefits to soil.

Cowpea plants flowering and starting to make seed – best time to kill for max benefits to soil.

I just finished reading famous chef Dan Barber’s article in the New York Times, “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”, and I’m left with a major “HUH?” I don’t get it. Barber argues that to fully support small eco-farmers, we need to do more than purchase their food crops: We also need to purchase all the cover crops that support the food crops.

Barber purchases emmer wheat for his restaurant from a small farmer. When Barber visited the wheat farm, he saw different cover crops growing for several seasons to prep the soil to produce delicious emmer wheat. Problem: the farmer gains no income from the cover crops. Remedy: purchase and eat the fruit of the cover crops – cowpeas, millet grain, etc. to make the cover crops profitable to the farmer.

HUH? I’m all for farmer profits, but doesn’t selling a cover crop negate the purpose of a cover crop – to improve the soil?

Akin to humans vacationing at a luxurious spa where they avoid stress and enjoy good food, cover crops are fabulous spa treatments for farm fields. All the plant biomass (roots, stalks, leaves) stays on the field. Nothing is taken off and sold. And, all the biomass feeds soil critters, eventually turning into new productive topsoil. Everything stays put. Ahhhhh… so invigorating!

Cover crops, like almost every plant, also feed and stimulate soil life in real time, while the cover crop is growing. It’s a symbiotic two-way street – plants send sugary photosynthesis products out their roots to attract and feed beneficial soil critters, and in turn, soil critters package and deliver desired nutrients to plant roots. As plants grow, the relationship scales up, which eventually creates high-functioning soil, the class of soil that can grow high quality, drought-resistant plants with little fertilizer (google farmers Gabe Brown and Dave Brandt).

Millet plants starting to make seed - kill it now!!!

Millet plant starting to make seed – kill it now!!!

But problem: I’ve heard that when plants start to make babies (seed), they shut off the two-way street relationship with soil life. Plants need to dedicate almost all their energy to making seed. Soil life no longer gets fed. Farmers know the best time to kill cover crops is right before seed set – farmers can reap the cover crop’s max benefits AND immediately plant their profit crop into soil that’s still amped up.

My point is: millet plants are a great cover crop. But removing and selling millet seed (think of all the soil nutrients in that seed!) dilutes the power of the cover crop. It’s like going to spa to get some much-needed R&R, but the spa turns out to be loud and stressful. It’s a big missed opportunity.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jim Boak on May 21, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    U can have it both ways. Climate plays a role of course but in some instances you can have your cake and eat it too. 🙂
    Jim Boak
    Sales Manager
    Salford Group inc.
    Factory: 1.519.485.1293
    Toll Free: 1 866 442 1293
    Cell: 1 519 670 1004
    From: Sweet Bay Farm
    Date: Wed, 21 May 2014 13:23:45 +0000
    ReplyTo: Sweet Bay Farm
    Subject: [New post] Save Farmers: Eat Your Cowpeas and Millet???

    Kelly posted: ” I just finished reading famous chef Dan Barber’s article in the New York Times, “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”, and I’m left with a major “HUH?” I don’t get it. Barber argues that to fully support small eco-farmers, we need to do more than purchase th”


  2. It’s a small technical difference, but to me it sounded like the chef/writer was talking about buying and eating rotational crops instead of cover crops.

    I was under the impression that farmers like Gabe Brown were letting some of their cover crops grow to maturity (I’ve been interested in the way he winters dry cows on winter-killed cover crops), some of his cover crops are being cut for silage or hay, he’s growing cash crops like corn and wheat, and I think he’s growing some cover crop seed (which might be the real money-maker).

    I’d also bet the farmer would be much more profitable selling that millet grain as a bag of cover crop seed compared to selling it to a chef.


    • True, very true. Farmers clearly have an economic decision on their hands when their cover crops start reaching maturity. But it sure would be nice if a cover crop could stay a cover crop, where nothing gets removed from the field. (Livestock grazing cover crops is probably even better for soil b/c all their manure stays on the field, grazing stimulates soil life, etc.)

      I’m probably lacking some perspective due to our farm’s very crappy soil. The soil around us is so starved, but many farmers keep trying to grow grass, harvest pitiful amounts of hay and sell it anyway, repeat. The soil here needs every ounce of TLC it can get.


  3. Posted by Kate on May 22, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    Glad to see a new blog entry from you… I’m not a farmer, but do have a vegetable garden that was originally carved out of bed rock, or close to it, so using some sheet composting and cover crops I’m working on building up and improving the soil. Just slashed and buried vetch/rye last weekend, and looking forwarding to interplanting some cowpeas between a few tomatoes and other goodies for the summer. Enjoy your writing a lot, thx


  4. Posted by Kevin on June 10, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    you are right. you can not have it both ways. To add to the soil you have to add something to the soil. “green manure” from cover crops will not be green if the plant goes to seed and the seed is harvested. Crops and the nutrients / OM (organic matter) are either created or destroyed. We put in nutrients or we take them away. But, good healthy soil does not erode and minerals and nutrients grow crops most efficiently when they are at the optimal levels in a healthy, biologically available environment! Cover crops help create that happy soil environment!


    • Kevin, thanks for reading and thanks for the affirmation 🙂

      Just a note of clarification to readers – lots of farmers & gardeners focus on green manure, which usually means young green plants getting turned into the soil to provide quick food and nutrients to beneficial soil life. On our farm, we grow plants to the almost-mature stage (going from green to brown). Plants at this stage are higher in carbon and don’t decompose as fast as green plants. Instead of tilling in the plants, we mow them down and leave them on the soil surface as deep mulch that protects soil from weather extremes. So far, we think this is the best management practice for our very sandy, low organic matter (fragile) soil.


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