As we drive the country roads this winter, there are fields so lush they can make any lawn-tending homeowner, well, "green" with envy. Many of these green acres are winter wheat and barley or hay crops like alfalfa and grass. Others are growing a "cover crop," planted solely to live over the winter and be replaced in the spring with a new crop of corn, soybeans or maybe a vegetable crop like green beans, sweet corn or pumpkins.
While cover crops have great benefits for the farmer, the greatest benefit may be what they do for the environment, reducing erosion and protecting our waterways. With climate change comes more severe weather events that bring rains of 2 inches and more, making water runoff and erosion an increasing problem. Adding to the many other sources of algae-growing nutrients, soil washing from the fields carries nitrogen and phosphorous to the lake, which can cause excessive growth of harmful algal blooms and cyanobacteria. This bacteria has been found in many New York waterways during the very dry summer of 2016, including Owasco Lake, which is the drinking water source for Auburn and surrounding communities.
Farmers in the Finger Lakes strive to be good stewards of the land. More and more, many are planting cover crops, which are a mainstay of sustainable agriculture, helping to reduce soil erosion, weeds and pests, hold moisture and improve fertility and soil quality. The number of acres planted to cover crops has increased dramatically over the last few years.
Cover crops are usually not harvested but worked into the soil, adding nutrients and organic matter. The improved soil can absorb and hold more rain, making plants more drought-resistant. Cover crops reduce runoff and evaporation of water from the soil and help to break up heavy soils that are prone to erosion.
Some of the cover crops you may see in the Finger Lakes include grasses, wheat, barley and crimson clover. Another might be tillage radishes, a giant white daikon-like radish that grows a deep root, which holds the soil from eroding and helps break up, or till the soil over the winter.
So as you travel the country roads of our beautiful Finger Lakes, take notice of what is growing in the fields. Appreciate the greenery that protects the soil as well as our lakes and streams, and thank a farmer.