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Farm Bill Could Help or Hinder Clean-Water Efforts

Cover crops promote soil health and control erosion and nutrient runoff, but support for them in a new Farm Bill is uncertain. (TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay)
Cover crops promote soil health and control erosion and nutrient runoff, but support for them in a new Farm Bill is uncertain. (TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay)
September 26, 2018

LANCASTER, Pa. - The federal Farm Bill expires on Sept. 30, but different versions of its replacement could have a big impact on Pennsylvania's clean-water efforts.

According to current U.S. Department of Agriculture risk-management rules, if something goes wrong with a cover crop, a farmer could lose eligibility for crop insurance. Farmers in the Keystone State are increasingly interested in planting cover crops between cash crops to control erosion and improve soil health.

According to Steve Groff, a Lancaster County farmer and founder of Cover Crop Coaching, cover crops not only help with farm yields but also protect waterways from sediment and nutrient pollution from animal waste and fertilizer that fouls waterways all the way to Chesapeake Bay.

"By using cover crops," he said, "we can help control the nutrients a lot better so that they're not subject to leaching down into the groundwater or running off with the surface water."

The Senate's proposal for a new farm bill includes a legislative fix to insurance rules on cover crops, while the House version would cut almost $800 million from the conservation title over 10 years.

Cover crops have been found to reduce nitrogen pollution by up to 50 percent and phosphorus pollution by up to 36 percent. Groff said they maintain biological activity in the soil for longer periods of time, "which actually has a side benefit of being able to lower our inputs, like fertilizer and so forth, because we're essentially working with nature."

While there is growing interest among farmers in cover crops, Groff said, there's still a long way to go.

"There's not enough adoption yet on every acre," he said. "So until that happens, I'm going to do all I can to educate farmers on how to do this correctly, not only so that they can benefit but also downstream."

He said cover crops also help wildlife species in decline, such as the monarch butterfly and the sage grouse, a Western-state cousin to Pennsylvania's state bird, the ruffed grouse.

More information on cover crops is online at

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA