This article aims to inform the Cooperative Extension System and outreach agencies of the educational preferences of farmers regarding cover crops. Understanding the educational preferences of farmers can help these agencies more effectively provide information and education. This article is based on the results of the survey distributed in 2019 to South Carolina farmers.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, best management practices (BMPs) are techniques used by agriculturalists to benefit water quality and conservation by controlling the impact of nonpoint sources of pollution.1 Across the country, various agencies are implementing programs to increase the usage and understanding of BMPs. For example, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) facilitates meetings with representatives as well as free resources, such as manuals and other information.2 Extension agencies typically use online flyers that outline various BMPs to educate farmers. Farmers adopt BMPs at different rates, depending on their preferences, values, and communication behaviors.3 Additional factors such as the number of tenant farmers, conservation budgets, and risks due to climate change also influence farmers’ adoption of BMPs.4
Cover crops are a type of BMP that are practical tools to address soil health and water quality concerns in agricultural systems. Cover crops provide numerous benefits, including reducing soil and nutrient loss,5 increasing soil health,5 providing plant nutrients,6 buffers against weather extremes,6 and can provide additional income from the cover crop itself or from reducing inputs to the subsequent cash crop.7 Cover crops can also help the build soil organic matter, which holds water and nutrients in the soil, and reduces soil erosion and waterway pollution.8 Cover crops are planted in the summer to late fall after harvest and before spring planting of the next year’s crops.9 Commonly used cover crops include crimson clover and hairy vetch.
Despite the benefits of cover crops, farmers face many challenges when attempting to integrate cover crops within their production systems. Cover crops are an additional expense that sometimes has little to no short-term financial benefit. It is understandably difficult for farmers to justify the use of sustainable farming measures such as cover crops when profit is minimal each year.
Government programs are available to help farmers adopt cover crops. For example, through the Farm Bill, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) manages cost-share programs that aim to help offset the cost of implementing cover crops. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) has provided more than 200 options for conservation projects with cost-share funding and has also allowed farmers to create individualized plans for BMP implementation.5
What Educational Methods are Beneficial for Farmers?
South Carolina row crop farmers responded to a 2019 survey about cover crops and their on-farm use; 46.4% of respondents used cover crops. Survey responses yielded information on where farmers get information about cover crops (educational opportunities) and the utilization of that information. Respondents ranked the effectiveness of the educational methods about cover crops on a scale of 1 to 5. Responses typically answered with 3 (Seldom Effective), 4 (Sometimes Effective), or 5 (Always Effective). By understanding farmers’ educational preferences, agencies can more successfully communicate new information regarding implementing cover crops and other best management practices to farmers.
Of the seven educational methods discussed in the survey, farmers indicated that educational methods are somewhere between seldom effective and sometimes effective. Farmers (75.8%) learned the most from trying things out on their own and learning from successes and mistakes. Of the other educational methods rated, most were ranked seldom to sometimes effective at increasing knowledge about cover crops. These included
- Attending a workshop with local experts and farmers (3.66)
- Meeting with a seed dealer, local retailer, or agronomist to discuss cover crops (3.63)
- An on-farm visit by a local conservation advisor (3.61)
- Attending a large regional meeting with experts giving presentations about cover crops and how they fit into conservation systems (3.46)
- Talking to a neighbor (3.44)
- Online research (3.38)
Survey respondents were also asked to indicate how they would prefer to learn about cover crops. Workshops, publications, and personal visits from Extension or NRCS agents were well received, with more than 42% of respondents indicating they preferred each of these methods. However, less than 30% of respondents preferred to learn through the Internet or YouTube videos.
Farmers need quality, research-based information about cover crops and how to implement cover crops most effectively on-farm. Currently, farmers trying methods on their own (experience) is the most effective way growers learn about cover crops. The importance of personal experience for knowledge gain is understandable, as farmers understand their land, their production practices, and the relative ease of implementing new practices. Farmers also indicated there is substantial value in local workshops that share information about cover crops. These kinds of workshops often occur in South Carolina, hosted by organizations such as Clemson University Cooperative Extension and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts. At these workshops, organizations work together to give presentations and demonstrations on the benefits of cover crops.
The Southern Cover Crops Council has created a detailed guide with information specific to each state and county in the southern region of the United States.10 This is an excellent resource for growers who are beginning the process of implementing cover crops or want to expand their use of cover crops. Many counties in South Carolina have information regarding cover crops and other BMPs on their Soil and Water Conservation District websites. Most of the current resources for South Carolina growers interested in learning more about cover crops are online manuals. However, growers have indicated that learning through the internet is their least preferred method.
The best method to increase knowledge of cover crops may be to conduct additional small workshops to reduce misconceptions about cover crops and increase farmers’ desire to implement them. Clemson University Cooperative Extension and NRCS agents aim to build trust with farmers, providing them with up-to-date and accurate information to help them make decisions about implementing cover crops. These agents offer farmers information about cover crops, including advice on seed mixes, dealers, and the application of cover crops. One-on-one meetings between agents and farmers also provide opportunities for the development of personalized solutions, tailored to each farmer’s needs.
Special thanks to the USDA- NIFA (award #: 2018-67020-27854) and the USDA – SC NRCS (award #: NR184639XXXXG002) for supporting our study.
- Best Management Practices (BMP) Program. Washington (DC): US Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service; 2015. https://www.fs.fed.us/naturalresources/watershed/bmp.shtml.
- Agricultural Best Management Practices. Tallahassee (FL): Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services; 2020. https://www.fdacs.gov/Agriculture-Industry/Water/Agricultural-Best-Management-Practices.
- The Adoption and Diffusion of Conservation Technologies. Washington (DC): US Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Services, People, Partnerships, and Communities; 2005 June;(7). https://www.blogs.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1045558.pdf.
- Liu T, Bruins RJF, Heberling MT. Factors influencing farmers’ adoption of best management practices: a review and synthesis. Sustainability. 2018 Feb;10(2):432.
- Arbuckle JG, Roesch-McNally G. Cover crop adoption in Iowa: the role of perceived practice characteristics. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2015;70(6):418–29.
- Dunn M, Ulrich-Schad JD, Prokopy LS, Myers RL, Watts CR, Scanlon K. Perceptions and use of cover crops among early adopters: findings from a national survey. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2016;71(1): 29–40.
- Benefits of Cover Crops. Managing cover crops profitably (3rd ed.). College Park (MD): Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE); 2007. https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition/Text-Version/Benefits-of-Cover-Crops.
- Snapp S, Labarta SM, Mutch R, Black D, Leep R, Nyiraneza J, O’Neil K. Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches. Agronomy Journal. 2005; 97(January):322–32.
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Washington (DC): US Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Services; 2018. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/.
- Cover Crop Resource Guide, Row Crops. Gainesville (FL): Southern Cover Crops Council; 2020. http://southerncovercrops.org/cover-crop-resource-guide/row-crops/.