The trouble with cover crops: Farmers’ experiences with overcoming barriers to adoption

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Roesch-McNally, Gabrielle
Basche, Andrea
Miguez, Fernando
Bowman, Troy
Clay, Rebecca
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Tyndall, John
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Natural Resource Ecology and Management
The Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management is dedicated to the understanding, effective management, and sustainable use of our renewable natural resources through the land-grant missions of teaching, research, and extension.
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The Department of Agronomy seeks to teach the study of the farm-field, its crops, and its science and management. It originally consisted of three sub-departments to do this: Soils, Farm-Crops, and Agricultural Engineering (which became its own department in 1907). Today, the department teaches crop sciences and breeding, soil sciences, meteorology, agroecology, and biotechnology.

The Department of Agronomy was formed in 1902. From 1917 to 1935 it was known as the Department of Farm Crops and Soils.

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  • Department of Farm Crops and Soils (1917–1935)

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Iowa Nutrient Research Center
The Iowa Nutrient Research Center was established to pursue science-based approaches to evaluating the performance of current and emerging nutrient management practices and providing recommendations on practice implementation and development. Publications in this digital repository are products of INRC-funded research. The INRC is headquartered at Iowa State University and operates in collaboration with the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa. Additional project information is available at:
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Cover crops are known to promote many aspects of soil and water quality, yet estimates find that in 2012 only 2.3% of the total agricultural lands in the Midwestern USA were using cover crops. Focus groups were conducted across the Corn Belt state of Iowa to better understand how farmers confront barriers to cover crop adoption in highly intensive agricultural production systems. Although much prior research has focused on analyzing factors that help predict cover crop use on farms, there is limited research on how farmers navigate and overcome field-level (e.g. proper planting of a cover crop) and structural barriers (e.g. market forces) associated with the use of cover crops. The results from the analysis of these conversations suggest that there is a complex dialectical relationship between farmers' individual management decisions and the broader agricultural context in the region that constrains their decisions. Farmers in these focus groups shared how they navigate complex management decisions within a generally homogenized agricultural and economic landscape that makes cover crop integration challenging. Many who joined the focus groups have found ways to overcome barriers and successfully integrate cover crops into their cropping systems. This is illustrated through farmers' descriptions of their ‘whole system’ approach to cover crops management, where they described how they prioritize the success of their cover crops by focusing on multiple aspects of management, including changes they have made to nutrient application and modifications to equipment. These producers also engage with farmer networks to gain strategies for overcoming management challenges associated with cover crops. Although many participants had successfully planted cover crops, they tended to believe that greater economic incentives and/or more diverse crop and livestock markets would be needed to spur more widespread adoption of the practice. Our results further illustrate how structural and field-level barriers constrain individual actions, as it is not simply the basic agronomic considerations (such as seeding and terminating cover crops) that pose a challenge to their use, but also the broader economic and market drivers that exist in agriculturally intensive systems. Our study provides evidence that reducing structural barriers to adoption may be necessary to increase the use of this conservation practice to reduce environmental impacts associated with intensive agricultural production.


This article is from Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2017), doi: 10.1017/S1742170517000096.