Given the recent rounds of misinformation, if not downright disinformation, that passes as criticism of renewable energy, it might be a good time to point out the obvious: Meeting increased demand for renewable alternatives to conventional energy cannot come at the expense of ecological health and environmental quality. And America’s farmers, who work and live on their lands every day, understand that more than anybody.
U.S. farmers are well positioned to take on the opportunity of meeting our renewable energy needs in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable. Through innovative practices and the wise management of soil, water and energy, these are stewards who will ensure our resources will be available for generations to come.
One conservation tool that is being used by more and more farmers is a cover crop. It’s a simple concept: rotations of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, are extended by planting another crop to manage soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests and diseases, while enhancing biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
For example, Ray Gaesser has been growing corn and soybeans in a no-till system in Adams County, Iowa, since the early 1980s. He has been experimenting recently with cover crops in an effort to control problems with erosion exacerbated over the last several years by an increase in rains that have in some cases exceeded three inches per hour on his fields. That kind of volume caused erosion in Gaesser’s no-till system where it hadn’t been seen before.
Cover crops were seen by Gaesser as necessary to adapt to increasingly volatile weather patterns confirmed by a study that showed the Midwest experienced a 52-percent increase in rain events of three inches or more during the 2000s, when compared to a 1961 to 1990 baseline. Iowa, itself, saw a 33-percent rise in heavy rain events.
If not managed, the increase in big precipitation events over the last decade can lead to increased erosion, the loss of nutrients, the prevention of timely weed control, surface crusting, narrowing planting and harvest windows, and compaction. The extent of damage is often driven by just when the rain is occurring, and with much of the heavy rains coming in the spring, that is a time when the soil, even in a no-till system, is most susceptible to erosion.
To counter these potential impacts, Ray and his son, Chris, are using a fall-seeded annual cereal rye or ryegrass. The move began a few years ago as an experiment with rye as cover crop through field trials, which showed no negative impact on yields. In 2011, the Gaessers planted a rye cover crop on several hundred acres of their more highly erodible land and were so impressed by the results, they seeded one-thousand acres of cover crop in 2012.
Their timing could not have been better. This past spring, Gaesser’s operation experienced a four-inch rain in an hour and ten minutes, yet there was almost no erosion on the no-till plus cover crop fields, reducing nutrient runoff.
The Gaesser experience is being reflected on farming operations across the country that recognize a need to adapt their management and conservation practices to environmental realities. Cover crops are becoming a popular tool among U.S. agricultural producers for increasing soil organic matter and preventing erosion and runoff.
It’s a trend among many nutrient management and conservation practices advocated by the 25x’25 through the Alliance’s Sustainability Principles. Adopted five years ago, the principles underscore the concept of sustainability as the ideal of stewardship and have been widely adopted by renewable energy producers and policy makers. Covering areas such as conservation, soil erosion, soil quality, water quality and wildlife, the principles also set economic and social guidelines for access to infrastructure, incentives and market development, access and distribution.
So, the next time a headline or press release suggests the renewable energy sector is abusing the nation’s natural resources, take a moment to remember that the vast majority of those who are bringing new sources of energy to help meet growing U.S. demand are, in fact, working in a way that also produces conservation and sustainable benefits to those resources they develop. They don’t take away from the quality of our natural resources. They improve it.