Grass Roots Political Populism and Cover Crops – What’s the Connection?

The recent national election has raised a lot of debate about what is going on in America. One thing seems clear: the people spoke loudly that politics-as-usual is unacceptable. Change – even with high risk – is better than being force fed more of the same disappointing results. In that sense, grass roots populism is like planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

Thirty years ago, the idea of planting grass seed over top of a corn or bean field was seen as lunacy. Until then, conventional thinking held that deep cultivation and multiple inputs of fertilizer were the answer to our quest for more crop productivity and profit. But as cost increases for fuel, equipment and fertilizer outpaced price hikes for crops, farmers saw productivity continue to rise while return on investment did not.

At the same time, innovative farmers and Extension agronomists revitalized the ancient practice of no-till. No-Till Farmer magazine began in the early 1970s as a way to promote the benefits of leaving crop residue on the fields and eliminating cultivation, both to reduce compaction and lower the number of equipment passes on the fields.

By the mid 1980s, a new generation of farmers upended conventional wisdom again by introducing cover crops.Like the recent election, popular growth in new ideas coupled with a lot of discontent about the status quo. The idea of keeping something planted in the fields year-found seemed radical. Planting annual ryegrass seemed counterintuitive. Why would you introduce a weed into a field you wanted to use for profitable corn or beans?

Interseeding equipment screen shot - JPEG

Well the results are in – cover crops and no till increase organic matter, improve soil tilth, foster health grown of microorganisms and increase crop productivity. Today, every year, thousands of new converts try planting cover crops. And the results have been overwhelmingly positive. People start with a small plot and learn how to manage the crop before moving to larger fields and then the whole farm.

Cover cropping and no-till agriculture reminds us of Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous quote: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Populism, like changing agriculture practices, seems at first to be scary. But in the long run, it’s better to rely on the wisdom of the people than to get trapped in a rut with politicians more eager to keep their jobs than to do the voters’ bidding.