by Farmer Skip

If I had to choose one essential element of organic farming it would be cover crops. Nature abhors bare ground yet drive through a countryside of conventional farming in winter and what you’ll see is a landscape stripped of its protective cover.

With the right timing and nature’s cooperation, a cover crop becomes a farm’s best friend. Those vine-like legumes — winter peas, iron and clay peas, hairy vetch — put nitrogen into the soil instead of the farmer hauling it in from a chicken farm or compost company or spraying a store-bought mix. Cereal crops like Elbon rye help suppress weeds and damaging nematodes*. Root crops like turnips and daikon radish aerate compacted soil, pulling up minerals for your vegetables.

Those are just some of the biological reasons for cover cropping. Other benefits include erosion control, increased water retention, feeding pollinators, and, perhaps most importantly, a bounty of organic matter that feeds microbes in the soil.

Recently, Green Gate completed a three-year contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)  to grow cover crops on our farm. NRCS has become the leading USDA agency to encourage farmers to transition to organic practices. With their assistance, we improved our cover cropping — increasing the number of species from two to five and growing this in summer and winter. NRCS introduced us to Sun Hemp. A distant cousin of marijuana  —without the THC — this plant loves hot sun, is drought tolerant, and its 8-foot stalk sends up huge yellow blossoms in late summer that Farmer Erin featured in her flower bouquets.

Now that Green Gate is back on its own as far as what we choose for cover cropping, I wanted to continue the experiments. I was visiting Sharon Crow, owner of Guinea Hill Farm in Elgin, when she showed me her pride and joy. Not her flock of guinea hens. Not her tomatoes or potatoes. No, a field of hubam clover, elbow rye and peas gone to seed. I was as impressed as I was horrified. No farmer lets cover crop go to seed. You not only lose nitrogen to seed production but those seeds will be “weeds” when you plant vegetables the next season.

Sharon explained that our farmer friend Wayne Lundgren inspired her to do something that many organic farmers are reluctant to do — let a field go fallow for two years. Land needs a rest yet it rarely does. Indeed, 50 years ago, the USDA’s Soil Bank Program used to pay farmers, my father included, to keep their land fallow.

Experiencing this cover crop gone wild is even better than receiving a check. Three fields here are buzzing with bees and glittering with butterflies of every stripe. Sparrow and dove are nesting in its cool bowels. Who knew that clover not only smells sweet when it flowers but can grow seven-feet tall?  Or that hairy vetch, with its lacy combs of purple flowers, should really be called hairy stretch as it spreads like a greedy prospector to claim its territory.

Best of all, these crops have smothered my nemesis — the invasive Johnson Grass that was imported to Texas a century ago.

This fall, instead of plowing up and planting vegetables I’ll mow this field and give it light disking. And then simply wait for nature to send the farm a deposit from its seed bank.

*Nematodes are microscopic worms that are often parasitic.