Continuous Learning About Continuous Living Cover

When it comes to introducing and supporting innovative sustainable farming practices, nothing beats a field day. Such events provide an opportunity for farmers to see firsthand how profitable, environmentally sound production practices are performing on their neighbor's land under climatic, agronomic and economic conditions they can relate to. Studies have shown that while sustainable farming practices reduce a producer's dependence on chemical and energy-based inputs, the tradeoff is a greater reliance on networking with other innovative farmers.

That's why a new report showing a significant uptick of field days related to "continuous living cover" in the four state region of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin is so encouraging. The report is based on statistics compiled by the Green Lands Blue Waters (GLBW) initiative, a collaboration involving individuals, groups—including the Land Stewardship Project—and institutions that have a shared goal of increasing the amount of Mississippi River basin land that's covered in vegetation for more than 90 days a year, which is the typical growing season for the corn-soybean duo-culture that dominates the region.

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Getting that cover established is key if we are to get on top of a water contamination issue that's causing problems here in Minnesota and extending all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It's no coincidence Green Lands Blue Waters is focusing on Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois—these four states produce an outsized share of agricultural runoff.

Giving the land the kind of consistent armor that can build soil health while protecting water quality and providing wildlife habitat can take many forms on the farm, from well-managed pastured acres and grassed waterways to cover crops and agroforestry enterprises. Some of these plant systems are perennial (grass, trees) while others offer a way to extend the green season on an annual basis (cover crops such as small grains and brassicas). GLBW places all of these options under a general term called "continuous living cover." This category provides farmers with various choices for integrating land-friendly plantings into their operations, especially if they're not willing or able to plant the whole farm to grass.

And judging by GLBW's "2014 Continuous Living Cover Events Report," there are increasing opportunities to learn about what options are out there for extending the green season in the Midwest. In 2010, the four state region of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin had less than two dozen continuous living cover field days; by the end of 2013 that number was 161. Iowa tends to lead the pack as far as number of field days offered annually, but the other states are catching up.

By far the most popular topic discussed at these events is perennial forage (pasture grass and hay), but cover cropping is a hot topic as well, with agroforestry and biomass also featured at several field days, according to GLBW.

It's also interesting to note who is sponsoring these events. Overall, the number of organizations sponsoring or co-sponsoring such events more than doubled from 2012 to 2013 alone. The usual suspects—the Land Stewardship Project, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and Practical Farmers of Iowa—are on that list of sponsoring groups. But it's exciting to see university extension, state agriculture departments, some "mainstream" farm groups and even government natural resource agencies and environmental nonprofits stepping up to the plate. Image

If we are to make serious inroads into shortening the "brown season," it's these latter two entities that could really make a difference. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Natural Resources, Nature Conservancy or Trout Unlimited sponsor such a field day, it's a recognition that working lands conservation plays a critical role in creating a healthier landscape—simply relying on land retirement or wildlife refuges isn't going to cut it.

And with more groups and agencies sponsoring such events, the chances of having one in your neighborhood are better than ever. In Iowa and Minnesota, the number of counties in which continuous living cover educational events are being held has increased every year since 2010. Such localizing of innovation is how big ideas become practical, on-the-ground solutions.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.