Once a farmer understands how ecosystems function, planting cover crops is an obvious choice. At least, that’s what North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown believes. For nearly three decades, Brown has been planting his cash crops (barley, oats, wheat, rye, and others) alongside cover crops—plants that are not for sale but instead are planted among cash crops to help retain water, prevent erosion, and increase soil fertility.
“The reason we made the decision is simple—it’s profitable,” said Brown. Since planting cover crops, Brown’s farm has saved a fortune on fertilizer and water, and Brown said he has seen an increase in yield, too.
But in addition to boosting some farms’ profits, many climate and agriculture experts say that cover crops may help farms withstand the effects of weather extremes driven by climate change. As crops across the country suffer dramatic losses, less than a quarter of US farms currently use cover crops, leading some to call for federal farm programs to incentivize the practice more strongly. Yet other experts are less enthusiastic about cover crops’ potential, saying bigger solutions are needed to transform the farming system as climate change advances.
New climate extremes
Farmers across the country are beginning to face worsening climate extremes that have impacted crops. In the Midwest, farmers are dealing with both drought and excess moisture from more frequent severe storms, which has increased farm subsidy payments for moisture-related crop losses in the region. In 2008, payouts for excess moisture in the region totaled a little less than $1 billion, but by 2019 the payouts totaled close to $3 billion, according to an analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy group.
In the Southwestern US, farmers’ crops are dying from heat, as shown by another recent EWG analysis. In the past two decades, temperatures have risen in nearly every Southwest county. As a result, crop insurance payments for heat-related crop losses are also on the rise. Between 2001 and 2021, farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah received over $1.33 billion in crop insurance payments for reduced crop yields due to heat.
Scientists only expect those climate extremes to get worse. The National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated government report that analyzes climate trends, predicts that annual average temperatures in the Southwest will rise by over eight degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. The assessment also suggests the Midwest will continue to see increased precipitation — so much so that some 100-year flooding events will happen every 25 years.
Benefits of cover crops
Mounting scientific evidence has shown that cover crops may be able to mitigate many of the effects of climate change on farms, such as flooding, drought, and heat-related crop losses. A 2023 study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that counties with higher rates of cover crop adoption also had lower levels of crop insurance losses, especially by reducing excess moisture in the Midwest, where floods are increasingly more common.
In particular, cover crops change soil chemistry to allow water to absorb better, which could be especially helpful to farmers. For example, Brown said he has seen water’s ability to enter his soil and remain there improve drastically since planting cover crops. “Every raindrop that falls on my ranch will be infiltrated,” he said.
“The science behind cover crops is well established at this point,” said Omanjana Goswami, a scientist with the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Given the urgency of the situation, and given that the climate crisis is proceeding at an alarming rate, it totally makes sense to ramp up cover crop programs here in the US.”
Scientists have not come to a consensus about the effects of cover crops on yield, though. While one recent study from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory showed an increase in yield on over half of fields studied, other research has indicated that cover crops may cause slight yield losses. And a study out this week from researchers at the University of Illinois found that climate change may reduce cover crops’ abilities to enhance the soil as well.
Incentives for farmers
Some federal incentives already exist for farmers to plant cover crops, including a range of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) made available an additional $19.5 billion to support the climate resiliency aspects of these USDA conservation programs, including incentivizing cover crops.
But some environmental advocates say those incentives could be improved so that the practice may be adopted more broadly. In the upcoming Farm Bill, new policies could help expand the use of cover crops, particularly those that tie crop insurance to cover crop planting. Congress is already considering policies along these lines. For example, a bill introduced in May called the COVER act would give farmers a $5 per acre discount on crop insurance if they implement cover crops. Programs that tie farm subsidies to cover crops are already in place in several states, including Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Wisconsin recently signed a similar bill into law.
Making cover crops mandatory rather than voluntary is not likely to happen in this year’s Farm Bill, said Goswami. But the nearly $20 billion made available by the IRA will hopefully improve incentives for farmers, she said.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog group, put out a report early this year urging federal regulators to implement more incentives for climate resiliency practices such as cover crops. The GAO notes that the USDA could offer a premium subsidy rate for farms that adopt these practices and suggested that the agency could require farmers to implement them in order to be eligible for its crop commodity programs, which help farmers obtain loans to plant certain crops and insulate them against price drops.
Brown said such programs could be helpful, but that the government must enforce them better so that farmers actually plant cover crops through the long-term. “There has to be some teeth behind them,” he said.
Others say cover crops are a Band-Aid for much larger problems in the farming system that require more transformative change.
The way the crop insurance program is currently set up encourages farmers to plant on so-called “marginal lands,” which are more susceptible to climate extremes like flooding and droughts, said Schechinger.
And while planting cover crops can help mitigate the effects of those climate extremes, incentivizing the practice doesn’t discourage planting on marginal lands, and could distract from the root problems facing the US farming system, said Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist at the University of Iowa.
“Cover crops are a really expensive remedy for things that shouldn’t be happening or be subsidized in the first place,” she said.
“If we want to promote climate change mitigation in agriculture, we should be focusing public money on practices that cause more benefits than cover crops,” said Secchi. This could mean more money for programs that help farmers convert cropland into pasture or perennial vegetation as well as stricter regulations on livestock farming, which is responsible for a large portion of emissions from agriculture, she said.
Goswami agrees that cover crops are not a panacea, adding that the government must ensure that additional incentives also benefit marginalized farmers, such as women, veterans, people of color, or people with smaller farms. “Because of how bureaucratic and complicated USDA is and has been in the past, there’s usually a long history of discrimination as well,” she said. “We have to make sure that $20 billion [from the IRA] doesn’t fill pockets which are already full.”