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Farmers need incentives to plant cover crops, Eastern Iowa farmer tells ag secretary

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig stands in a field of alternating rye and soybean rows grown by Brian (middle) an
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig stands in a field of alternating rye and soybean rows grown by Brian (middle) and Mitchell Hora (right). Mitchell Hora founded agriculture consulting company Continuum Ag, and has focused his efforts on growing sustainable farming practices – especially cover crops. (Sarah Watson/The Union)

AINSWORTH — Hosting Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig on Tuesday, an Eastern Iowa farmer and ag consultant asked Naig to consider policies — such as a cost-share seed incentive program — to encourage more Iowa farmers to invest in cover crops.

Founder of rural Washington County-based agriculture consulting company Continuum Ag, Mitchell Hora, 25, and his father, Brian Hora, 57, showed Naig one of their field of soybeans grown in alternating rows with cereal rye, which reaches a few feet higher than the soybeans.

“With this cover crop and cash crop growing together, they could compete with each other if you do it wrong, but the soybeans growing in the rye look phenomenal..The soybeans are fixing nitrogen and the rye is pulling nitrogen out of the soil, and they’re able to work synergistically together.”

A small, but growing share of Iowa farmers employ offseason crops — such as cereal rye or barley — to capture carbon in the soil and reduce erosion, but growing a cash crop like soybeans and a covercrop like cereal rye side-by-side is an unusual undertaking, Mitchell Hora said. Normally, cover crops are grown over the winter, and killed off in time for the growing season to reduce risk, Between 2015 and 2017, the share of Iowa’s farmland with cover crops doubled. Yet just about 4 percent of Iowa’s farmland had cover crops in 2017.

The alternating rye and soybean rows is one way the Horas have experimented with various types and ways to grow cover crops. The two collect data to determine which methods best trap carbon from the air, diversify the nutrients in the soil, and prevent erosion — all factors that produce better yields in the future due to better soil health and reduce the amount of carbon in the air.

One method to encourage more widespread use of cover crops, Mitchell Hora told Naig, was encouraging locally grown cover crop seed. Mitchell Hora said they purchased most of the seed for their cover crops from out-of-state, such as Montana or Oregon, which could be grown in-state.

“The goal is 12.5 million acres of cover crops, and there’s not seed production currently available to supply that type of demand, so I think it’s an opportunity for (the Iowa Department of Agriculture),” Mitchell Hora said. Both Naig and state Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford said they were interested in the idea, and that they would have more meetings and collect more data on what type of program would work best. Iowa has offered a discount on cover crop insurance for the last three years, and Naig said ag would be looking ahead.

“You want to see the environmental outcome that you’re looking for and you want to see hopefully some positive movement in terms of profitability,” Naig said. “So you’ve got to marry those things together to get widespread use.”

The Horas grow mustard and rye for seed, and sell the barley to local breweries, including an Independence-located brewery set to open this fall. That all accompanies their corn and soybean crops.

In one of Brian Hora’s barley fields, Mitchell Hora said by his preliminary estimates, 1.15 tons of carbon was trapped in the soil that wouldn’t have been there without the cover crop. Mitchell Hora pointed out worms in the soil, a good biological indicator of healthy soil, that chew up the organic material and cycle it back into the soil.

“In one teaspoon of our soil, there’s more microbes than there are people on Earth,” Mitchell Hora said.

Mitchell Hora started Continuum Ag in 2015 as a junior at Iowa State University, and the company uses computer software and data to map out the soil health of customers’ fields.

The key takeaway, Brian Hora said he hoped Naig would take from their meeting was that cover crops and carbon sequestion would be the “next steps” of farming.

“Benefits of cover crops are way more than we anticipated,” Brian Hora said. “Especially with water quality and erosion. We can make a huge difference in a small amount of time.”

Comments: (319) 398-8370; sarah.watson@thegazette.com

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