Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cover Crops

The NY Times has an article on how organic farmers combat pests. Not remarkable, except the next to last paragraph brought back a memory:
As far as weeds on organic farms, the biggest help there may also be cover crops, things like rye and fava beans. Many cover crops aren’t seeded at a high enough rate, Dr. Brennan said. “We have five times more weeds in vegetables where cover crop is the accepted rate,” he said. “If we increase the seeding rate by three times, we have virtually no weeds. That’s extremely important because organic farmers have no herbicides.”
My first boss at ASCS sent me to North Carolina for a month to see how the state and county offices operated.  I remember joining one county executive director on a drive to a local saw mill where for the first time I saw a veneer cutter.  At least that's what I'd call it: to describe it I'd say think of a pencil sharpener, except larger and instead of the blade hitting the cylinder of wood (pencil) at an angle it was parallel, so you got an a cylindrical wood shaving about 1/8" thick.  Cut the cylinder into strips and you have the materials to weave wooden garden baskets. 

Anyhow, what the director was doing was signing people up for conservation practices under the old Agricultural Conservation Program.  ASCS would share the costs of things like farm ponds and, in this case, liming fields and sowing a winter cover crop.  The Nixon administration battled with Congress trying to end this governmental subsidy program, arguing that USDA was just encouraging farmers to do things which, if economical, they should do themselves.  By the mid 70's the program got extensively changed, with liming and cover crops dropped, and eventually it was given to NRCS to run.

The director knew that some of the sawmill workers were farmers who, since it was November and the crops were in, were picking up some money by working at the sawmill. The director had an incentive: the better job he did in signing up farmers to participate, the better he looked in the eyes of the district director and state office.  And cover crops and limed fields improved agriculture in his county.

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