Farmer survey shows strong interest in further cover crops research

MORE science is needed to understand the benefits and challenges of cover crop in the Suwannee River Basin in North Florida

Abstract:
Despite numerous benefits described in the literature (CTIC 2016, SARE 2016, USDA 2014), the rate of Florida cover crop adoption is among the lowest in the nation- around 2.6% of total farms or 1.4% of managed acres (NASS 2012). Low cover crop adoption rates inherently jeopardize the sustainability of agriculture in the area through lost opportunity for conservation and possibly less economic resilience. Understanding the barriers to adoption, current knowledge level of soil health, and comparative economics on the feasibility of cover crops in our region through the use of 12 on-farm demonstrations will allow us to document farmer’s perspectives on cover crops. Taking before and after soil health data for comparison will show where improvements can be made in our sandy Florida soils. Hosting field days and discussions, creating diverse educational resources, and testing diverse species blends and production methods will afford us greater understanding and direction for cover crop recommendations. Participation of farmers in the process of discovering barriers and opportunities for understanding will lead to greater ownership of the research, which will accelerate adoption on more acres while stewarding the use of natural resources.

Project Objectives:
Objective 1: Collaborate with farmers to better understand their challenges and logistics of
adoption
Objective 2: Test cover crops on-farm using measurements specific to their desired outcome
Objective 3: Create outreach materials and venues for sharing specifics on cover crop economics, planting, and benefit.

Materials and methods:
To recruit and engage famers in this project, we employed a “Discovery Farms” approach (UW 2016) where we already had identified a few farmers (4) planting cover crops and asked their input on evaluating Best Management Practices (BMPs) that would impact productivity and environmental issues (including water quality). Most Florida farmers have been aware of EPA regulations coming down to the State level, but are unsure what BMPs have the most impact. Another 8 farmers were recruited from the original group who have shown interest in cover crops.
Through these demonstration sites, we are capturing soil and crop productivity data under real-world conditions. Our goal throughout the process is to provide practical, credible, site-specific information for better farm management (behavioral change). Farmer-cooperators agreed to three major aspects of the project:

Objective 1: Collaborate with farmers to better understand their challenges and logistics of adoption
Objective 2: Test cover crops on-farm using measurements specific to their desired outcome
Objective 3: Create outreach materials and venues for sharing specifics on cover crop economics, planting, and benefit.

Research results and discussion:
Response from our grower survey at the field day was positive and showed strong interest in continuing the study. Most answered that equipment (71%), costs (64%), timing (47%) and labor (41%) were important or very important barriers to implementation. Wildlife, rotations and Knowledge were considered less of hindrances to adoption. Most felt cover crops increased profitability of their system (76%) while 76% said it also helped reduce risk. Of the 17 farmers answering the survey on the field day, 94% showed strong or very strong interest in planting cover crops the coming season.
As this is not yet the completion of the first cover crop season (late spring 2017), results are just coming in. Most farmers were receptive to discussion about establishing cover crops, the economics, and potential impact on their cropping system. More data and discussions in the second year will allow for comparisons and analysis.
12 farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities Edit
48 consultations
1 curricula, factsheets or educational tools
12 on-farm demonstrations
1 published press articles, newsletters
1 tours
1 workshop field days

Participation Summary
17 farmers
23 ag professionals participated

Education/outreach description:
Surveys were conducted at the onset of this project last summer (2017) and continued as on-farm participants were recruited in the fall. Of the 12 participating, 11 planted cover crops and one is planning to do so this summer. Regular visits to the farms continued throughout the winter for initial soil health (Ward Labs), technical assistance, seeding and photography.Biological1_20180117
A workshop/field day on Soil Health and Cover Crops was held at the NFREC-SV farm March 14, 2018 with 40 participants (17 farmers and 23 agency/gov people). Follow up soil health samples will begin 3 weeks after termination of the cover crops for comparative purposes in Spring 2018.

Learning Outcomes Edit
12 farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Key changes:
Cost of production
Timing of planting
Cover crop fertility
Cover crop species

Project Outcomes Edit
12 farmers changed or adopted a practice
3 grants received that built upon this project
4 new working collaborations

Project outcomes:
With long fallow periods in our North Florida cash crop system, more emphasis is being placed on what this does to soil health. Future sustainability of the soil and water resources will depend on how farmers integrate crop rotation, tillage and cover crops.
The newly formed Southern Cover Crops Council (SCCC) will serve to identify and advance the most appropriate cover crop species and management to the southern region. Considering the growing farmer involvement in other conservation-focused efforts (Sod-Based Rotation, SE Climate Consortium, etc.), farmers are waiting for answers and eager to change. New machinery is available for no-till and reduced tillage at our local Sunbelt Ag Expo (Tifton, GA). Likewise the SRWMD and State Office of Ag Water Policy are teaming up with private and public groups to implement agricultural projects most likely to succeed (Springs Pilot project, Sustainable Suwannee, Suwannee River Partnership). Conducting outreach and cover crop experiments with local farmers for environmental and economic benefit along with creation of materials and workshops to disseminate valuable information will contribute to agricultural sustainability. To be widely adopted, we will need consistently themed messages for both public and private stakeholders to explain techniques for immediate implementation. In the coming year, we hope to provide farmer-focused information and deliver it in ways that will remove barriers to adoption and bring about lasting change for soil quality and farm economics.

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