By Melina Watts, Glenn County RCD
When 95 people stand around under grey skies and looming storm clouds to look at plant varietals while picking apart shovels of saturated soil, exploring root types and soil pore structure, you know there’s a compelling idea at play – cover crops. From increasing soil porosity, improving soil organic matter, and sequestering carbon to reducing erosion and maintaining and increasing precious topsoil, cover crops’ ability to renew soil health is remarkable.
Brian Lohse of Lockwood Seed and Grain in Willows, Calif., has been developing cover crop seed blends for years and staged a soil health tour on April 3 in partnership with Glenn County Resource Conservation District (GCRCD) for Glenn County growers, starting at Country Pumpkins in Orland, Calif., and moving on to one of his family’s orchards on County Road 29.
The simplest rule when using cover crops in soil health is to “keep it covered,” Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) Steve Gruenwald said. While comparing and contrasting the nine mixes on site at Country Pumpkins, he explained that the idea of letting soil be fallow – or bare – is essentially flawed.
Gruenwald, who owns Growers’ Choice and co-owns Country Pumpkins with his wife, planted nine cover crop mixes so farmers would have the unique opportunity to walk through samples of a clover mix, brassica mix, drought clover mix, a mix geared toward reducing erosion, SR Mix, the Mutiplex 2 (which looks like the nitrogen special, bell beans, winter peas and vetch) and several variations including oats, triticale and mustard. Gruenwald dug up soil to demonstrate how each mix impacted his field’s soil.
“[I was] really excited to see how many people were there,” farmer Greg Massa said. “For those of us who have been doing cover crops for a while, it has seemed like we were the only ones. Now, many people are talking about how to use cover crops, what kind, what the costs are, how to start.”
“My first impression was that it was great that I got to see all of the different cover crops in one place, because having just done our CDFA Healthy Soils grant application and talking to Brian Lohse about what crop mixes we should put in, it was excellent to see all these mixes in one place so we could see what we are getting into,” said Massa. He felt that some groups of people on the cover crop tour are already into it, while others attending were looking for help to get started.
“These field tours are a great opportunity for both farmers and companies to get together and see things growing side by side,” said Lohse. “We get so busy, the phone rings, emails ting, but to take 20 minutes to actually walk through each of the cover crop blends in the field, and at their prime, to see what you want, that is powerful. Or, if you want to do things a little differently, you can make your mix and do it your own way. Some of those mixes are my favorites, but each can make it their own way to make a cover crop for their farm.”
Lohse noted the 95 guests in attendance represented thousands of acres in Glenn County and beyond. In particular, he saw decision-makers from four or five of the larger walnut companies stop by, and he was excited to see interest from both small and large operations.
More and more growers are making the investment in cover crops, which from the point of long-term topsoil maintenance and soil health is the gift that keeps on giving.
GCRCD Executive Officer Kandi Manhart observed there is a great deal of funding available to support farmers looking to try cover crops on their farm. USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has farm bill funding to support the use of cover crops and other conservation practices, while the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has a somewhat-newer Healthy Soils Grant Program to give additional resources to farmers and help improve soil health.
When it comes to soil health, in Glenn County, our growers are leading the way. Please follow our YouTube channel as we add success stories of how our growers are working to improve their lands. If you are interested in learning more about soil health or receiving information about GCRCD field days, held in partnership with the NRCS and UC Cooperative Extension, please contact Glenn County RCD Program Development Coordinator and Soil Health Coordinator Melina Watts via email at melina[at]glenncountyrcd.org or by calling the GCRCD office at 530-934-4601 x5.
Need help picking the right kind of cover crops?
- Want to manage in orchard nematode counts? Go with mustard and radish in a brassica mix.
- Want to increase nitrogen fixation? Try legumes such as vetch and peas.
- Want to create delicate pore structure in your soil? Go with cereals.
- Want it all? Go for a mix.