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Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 5

Learning by Doing; Importance of Innovators and Early Adopters – Part 1

When Nick Bowers joined the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, he was a third-generation family member to do so. His grandfather was among the founders of the Commission, a grower-funded group that promotes use of ryegrass in a variety of ways. It’s strictly a volunteer gig.

When Nick joined, he probably had no idea that he was about to become a leader and champion of cover crops in the Midwest. He didn’t know that in doing so, he would be helping to build quality back into depleted soil, where the bulk of corn and soybeans in the US are grown. Maybe he was surprised that it would result in a new business for him, in addition to his family farm. “And,” he said, “I would never have guessed in 2000 that by 2020 all but 10 percent of my farm would be in no-till.”

As the Chair of the Commission, Nick was there when the idea hatched to test annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the Midwest. He and other Oregon seed growers donated annual ryegrass seed they’d grown to help jumpstart the project. That initiative is now 25 years old and continues to bring market development and research of cover crops to new audiences.

Nick was among the first Oregon seed growers to visit the Midwest, along with Commission administrator Bryan Ostlund. There came dozens more trips as the years went by. “It was at a time I could easily travel, when my kids were younger and in school,” Nick said. “There were years when I was back east for a week a month,” he added. Nick, other growers and a career extension agent from Oregon State University, Mark Mellbye, were committed to seeing the project through and introducing it properly. “Mark was immensely helpful, both in Oregon and the Midwest,” Nick said. “It wasn’t about sales, but about research, field trials and education. I think our collective effort helped a lot, because you had university agronomists and even competing growers from Oregon emphasizing the same things over and over. It helped build credibility in the Oregon seed industry,” he added.

Nick recalls that, in the first few years of effort, Oregon growers sent only a few truckloads of annual ryegrass seed to growers in the Midwest. “It was tough finding people willing to try it out,” simply because it was novel, and it was a risk that successful farmers didn’t see a need to take. And I had quite a time of finding a proper storage facility for the seed we didn’t use right away,” he added. In fact, during one of his annual trips, Nick remembers noticing that a few pallets of seed had been broken into by mice and it had to be re-bagged. All of that changed as people began to find annual ryegrass easier than they thought to integrate into their no-till operation.

Nick said that initial success with “innovators” was important, because “early adopters” keep an eye on innovators, who were pretty excited at the results they were getting with annual ryegrass: erosion control, weed suppression, saving on nitrogen fertilizer and noticing a bump in yields.  Once the early adopters began buying seed, the sales of annual ryegrass began to multiply quickly. Some of them became seed distributors for Oregon growers. More importantly, they became the next tier of experienced trainers and educators. The cover crop revolution was growing roots.

In the next chapter, Nick and others will talk about the kind of “hands-on” work Oregon growers did to get cover crops accepted in the Midwest.

Midwest Adoption of Cover Crops Varies From State to State

Incentives, Open Minds and Industry Integrity Are Helping Growth

In states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Indiana, adoption of cover crops has spread like good news. Nothing beats seeing firsthand how cover crops can cut costs, build soil, reduce pollution and boost production.

“In some states, financial incentives appear to be stimulating adoption,” said Oregon cover crop seed producer, Nick Bowers. “For example, farmers in Indiana are receiving up to $32/acre to plant cover crops,” Bowers said. “Incentives lower the risk, plain and simple.”

But in other states, cover crop adoption is slow, even stunted. “Information – sometimes too little and sometimes misleading – can impede adoption,” Bowers added. Without good information and supportive, experienced crop consultants, the transition to healthy new practices can be prolonged.

Take annual ryegrass for example. In some states, it’s the “go to” cover crop because of its low cost, deep rooting and nitrogen recycling capabilities. In other states, however, annual ryegrass is still confused with cereal rye. Others shy away because of winterkill stories or how easy it is to kill in the spring. “How can annual ryegrass succeed so well over a dozen years in one state and be so easily dismissed in others,” Bowers wondered.

Bowers is among a handful of Oregon seed growers who have committed to educating a farming public eager to learn about cover crops. The Oregon growers also help to fund research and public education. www.ryegrasscovercrop.com .  They’re joined by crop consultants like Dan Towery and Mike Plumer, who have decades of experience as educators and crop consultants in Indiana and Illinois. Likewise, Midwest growers like Jamie Scott (IN) and Terry Taylor (IL) continue to present at conferences and host field days. “These people successfully demonstrate, year after year, that growing annual ryegrass is not difficult, but as with any crop, you have to pay attention to the management details,” Bowers said.

To propagate more use of annual ryegrass in states like Iowa, Ohio and Missouri, Bowers said that they’re working with select farmers who employ cover crops already. “Word of mouth has been the most reliable way to spread the word,” he said, “and nothing sells better than success stories.” From that exposure, certain soil scientists and crop consultants will become champions, and with that comes added encouragement from organizations like NRCS and county Soil and Water Conservation District staff.

Aside from educating the public and developing distribution points for seed in the Midwest, Oregon growers continue to develop hardy varieties of annual ryegrass to withstand harsh winters. “In this respect, we’re also trying to improve the consistent supply of those pure varieties…and not inadvertently have a batch in which less winter hardy seed is mixed.” Vast quantities of annual ryegrass is sent each year to southern states that don’t need winter hardy seed. “So, it’s important to make sure that the newer, hardy varieties aren’t grown in fields where less hardy crops were grown the previous year. In that way, the customer will know that what’s printed on the tag is exactly what they’re getting in the bag,” Bowers said.

“With the increases in cost of fuel and other inputs, cover crops will increasingly become an indispensable tool for profitable agriculture, and for a healthy environment,” Bowers said.