Over the past few years, it has become more common for larger farming operations to grow winter cover crops on their fields, mostly due to the Maryland Department of Agriculture Cover Crop Program. Through this program, farms are paid a certain amount per acre to grow the winter cover crops as an incentive to the farmers. The intention of the program is, and I quote the 2011 mailing sitting before me at the moment, “to control soil erosion, reduce nutrient runoff and protect water quality in streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.”
But what does all this mean to the average American who has no idea what is involved in farming? Alas, the depth of that question is too vast to answer in this brief entry. Nonetheless, I will attempt to sum it up to the non-farming mind. Essentially, current large farm operations are, for the most part, non-till operations. What is a non-till operation? The answer to that question is involved as well. Sometime within my lifetime, that is the past forty years, the traditional farming practice of adding nutrients, tilling the soil, then planting a crop changed to spraying chemical herbicides on a field, adding synthetic fertilizers, then seeding a crop in the soil without tilling became the accepted practice of large scale operations. (This is not to suggest that synthetic farming additives are new to the past forty years, just the no-till approach.) From what I understand, this was viewed as wise to prevent erosion from tilled land. There are many, many issues involved with this, and again, there is not enough room in this short entry to discuss all of this.
As the years passed with the non-till farming approach, some environmental issues arose. The one I remember most clearly is the pfiesteria outbreak in the late 1990s. The pfiesteria outbreak of 1997 resulted in many, many dead fish found upon various beaches along the Chesapeake Bay. It was determined that an excess of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay led to the outbreak, and that was mostly the result of run-off from farms into the Chesapeake water system.
Without getting into great detail about this, the Maryland Department of Agriculture Cover Crop Program was developed as a means of lessening the possibility that such an outbreak will happen again. The thought here, again, as I understand it, is that if crop land harvested from, say, corn or soybeans in the late Summer/early Fall, are replanted into winter cover crops, more of those nutrients will be trapped in the soil, and the soil will benefit from the green winter growth of the cover crops as well.
Okay, now that that seemingly long-winded introduction has been written, now I can proceed to “death farming”. What is “death farming”? That is a term I use to describe most of what was detailed above, but it is most glaringly apparent in how the large-scale conventional farmer treats those winter cover crops once the spring arrives.
As an organic farmer, that is, a farmer who never uses any form of synthetic product to fertilize the land, kill crops or kill… anything for that matter, the thought of winter cover crops is quite wonderful. After some of the summer crops on my own farm, such as beans, squash and tomatoes have finished their natural production for the year, winter cover crops are often planted, so as to add “green manure” to the soil in the spring. What this means is that, for the most part, winter rye is planted and grows into a healthy crop, then it is tilled into the soil in the spring. Once it is tilled into the soil, the many, many, many organisms in that soil break down the tilled-in “green manure” and turn it into food for the upcoming season’s crops. Again, there is too much to discuss here on the issue, but for my organic process, tilling is by no means evil, in fact it quickens the health of the soil that produces the organic crops in the upcoming year. And this process is one that has been utilized for countless generations.
And now for something completely different… Death Farming…
I am startled every late Fall and early Winter when the sight of winter cover crops are viewed growing on the large conventional fields that had previously grown corn and soybeans. To me, such late season green growth is a true sight of beauty, and after all, when nature thrives in its verdure, it IS beauty!
But then, the winter sets in, and those crops are often covered by snow, and as of recent, many feet of snow! As the spring thaw sets in, those cover crops revive… and thrive. The green growth always appears impressive to me, for there are acres and acres of it. It is so easy for me to forget the process involved in the conventional approach to those winter cover crops, that is… until…
Inevitably, at least on the fields that my eyes get to witness in the neighboring conventional fields, sometime in May, very separated tire trails can be viewed between those long rows of winter cover crops. As I have witnessed over the years, those tire trails mean that those long rows of winter cover crops have been, or soon will be “killed down”. That is the term used by conventional practices to mean, spraying enough herbicide to cause those beautiful stands of winter growth to die. Large farm machinery with very wide arms drive through those fields of green winter crops to spray the herbicide necessary to kill those crops. And “necessary” is the accurate term for the conventional approach. That green growth needs to be “killed down” in order to plant the next season's corn and soybean… that, well, I can’t stop now… are horrible for human diets, as well as the animals that end up in some of our diets.
After the spraying of herbicides that result in the “kill down”, the deep green of those vast acres of winter crops quickly yellow. And I mean QUICKLY. Within a week or two, those fields go from forest green to desert… death. And that is why I call it “death farming”. It is absolutely antagonistic to my own approach to farming. Why allow for plants to grow into luscious greenery, only to spray kill them, without truly benefiting from the growth process? (Again, there is an extreme amount of health variables involved here, but due to the brevity of this entry…) Why waste the effort, that is, those plants’ efforts to thrive only to be slaughtered needlessly, for there is ultimately no benefit to the process. No health is added to the soil. Nothing is added in reality other than more chemicals, more death. And thus, the farming of death will continue…