Opinion: Encourage cover crops nationwide through the crop insurance program

Iowa is a nationwide leader in a conservation practice known as cover cropping. For nearly a decade, increases in cover crop incentives have resulted in major increases in cover crop adoption among Iowa farmers.

The recently introduced “Cover Act” should be a part of the 2023 farm bill to encourage even more farmers.

Cover cropping is a conservation strategy that has proven highly successful in promoting soil health and water quality. A cover crop is what it sounds like — a crop (such as winter rye) that covers farmland when there are no other crops planted.

Like a blanket, the growth of a cover crop prevents run-off from snowmelt or heavy rainfalls. Instead of the good earth being washed away down the river, cover crops allow the soil, along with all of its nutrients and microbial composition, to be held in place.

This leads to higher organic matter and nutrient retention in the soil, leading to higher margins for farmers with greater yields and lower input costs for treatments like fertilizer. There are many more benefits, but all in all, cover crops serve the dual purpose of conserving soil and water and making farming more profitable. It's a win-win.

At the federal level, the National Resource Conservation Services offers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. At the state level, there is the Water Quality Initiative, which administers funds directly through local soil and water conservation districts. Private organizations have begun offering cost-share for cover crop use as well. All of these services greatly aid farmers to begin planting cover crops.

However, they all have limits to the number of years that a farmer can receive payments and/or the number of acres that are eligible for payments. Therefore, while they certainly help increase adoption rates, these programs are slowing in impact as more and more farmers have already reached their year or acre limitations.

To reach our goals of cover crop adoption statewide, we need to succeed in incentivizing farmers to grow cover crops at any scale for long periods of time. One of the best ways to do this is to provide an incentive through the crop insurance system that almost all Iowa farmers use.

Cover crop insurance incentive programs recognize that farmers who plant cover crops are less likely to have crop failures, and so, logically, offer a discount on crop insurance.

This concept started in Iowa and has worked extremely well here. Iowa is now in its fifth year accepting applications for the Cover Crop Insurance Discount, which takes $5 per acre off of a farmer's crop insurance premiums. The cover crop insurance discount offers farmers at any stage of cover crop adoption and any size of farm an insurance discount for planting cover crops.

In 2021, the U.S. government followed Iowa’s model with the Pandemic Cover Crop Program by offering farmers around the nation a $5 per acre subsidy for crop insurance if planting cover crops. However, being COVID-related, this program is expiring.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, introduced the Conservation Opportunity and Voluntary Environment Resilience Program (COVER) Act, which would make the$5/acre federal Cover Crop Insurance Discount permanent. This program has the potential to create permanent increases in cover crop adoption in Iowa and in the rest of the country, if adopted.

By pairing highly utilized crop insurance with growing cover crop adoption, the COVER Act would be a big step to continue the growth of cover crops in Iowa to meet our state’s water quality and soil health goals.

Aaron Lehman

Aaron Lehman is the president of the Iowa Farmers Union and is a fifth-generation farmer from central Iowa.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: Encourage cover crops through the crop insurance program