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Curious Trend in Cover Cropping in California

Brian German Industry

It appears that the level of adoption for cover cropping in California is significantly lagging behind the rest of the country.  While there are a number of different factors that can act as a barrier for implementing cover crops into an agricultural operation, an interesting trend was discovered when looking at the data from the 2017 census of agriculture.

cover cropping

“In terms of acreage, California adoption of cover cropping only changed by about two percent, so it was essentially flat,” said Tim Bowles, Assistant Professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley.  “But at the same time, the number of operations trying cover cropping, or reporting cover crop use increased by quite a bit; about 26 percent over that same time period.  So, we seem to have this disconnect between this kind of flat acreage but a pretty big increase in the number of operations that are trying it.”

During that same time period, farmers throughout the rest of the country increased their implementation of cover crops by 50 percent.  In working with growers and other industry members, Bowles identified a wide range of barriers that California farmers highlighted as preventing them from integrating cover crops into their operation. 

Agronomic issues such as how to establish a cover crop in an orchard, or questions of cover crop termination, were referenced as being barriers to adoption, although those can be more easily addressed than other issues.  Farmers who rent land for producing high-value vegetables also noted that growing a cover crop in lieu of a cash crop was not economically viable when taking land cost into consideration.  Another issue that was highlighted by growers was water use and water availability.

“If growers perceive cover crops being in competition with their crops for water, they’re probably less likely to want to do it,” Bowles noted.  “Although, cover crops are also increasing water infiltration into soil and so the net benefit of using more or using less water with a cover crop is actually more of an unclear story.”

To help increase cover crop acreage in California, Bowles suggests focusing on a host of pathways for increasing ease of access to implementing the practice and incentivizing the adoption of cover crops through a variety of methods.  “We need to think about promoting just a systems thinking approach when we’re dealing with cover crops because these are very complex and they intersect all different parts of an operation,” Bowles explained.

About the Author

Brian German

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Multimedia Journalist for AgNet West