Posts Tagged ‘cover crops’

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.