Organic farming is supposed to be better for our soil, for our Earth. It doesn't allow the use of manufactured chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and GMOs. To help grow a healthy crop and produce a strong harvest, organic farmers turn to environmentally friendly farming techniques. Cover crops are one of those techniques.
Cover crops are plants that farmers grow to cover the soil instead of harvesting them. Farmers would grow these crops between seasons or harvests, and basically let them die before planting a new cash crop, one that they will harvest and sell. It sounds a bit odd that farmers would plant something to let it die but cover crops bring a wealth of benefits, which include soil erosion, soil fertility and quality, water management, weed and disease management, and pest management.
One of the main reasons for cover crops is to prevent soil erosion. Rain and water runoff are actually problems that can make some big problems to farmland. Cover crops can slow down rain drops from hitting the surface and their roots can act as anchors to keep the soil in place.
Another massive advantage of cover crops is their ability to increase soil fertility and quality. Cover crops maintain and manage much of the macro and micro nutrients in the soil. They soak up nitrogen, a key element for growing good harvests, and replace it back into the soil when they die. Otherwise, the nitrogen leaves the soil through water runoffs or in a gaseous state. The retention of nitrogen in the soil is huge because farmers don't need to use chemical nitrogen fertilizers, which are can throw off ecosystems and kill wildlife. Cover crops also improve the soil quality by increasing the biomass found in the soil. Biomass helps the soil retain more water and nutrients, which naturally grow larger and healthier crops.
Water management is another benefit of cover crops. The cover crops grow roots that can reach deep into the soil. These roots act as pathways for rainfall and water to really get into the ground instead of just running off the surface. The cover crops themselves also hold a lot of water. Once they are killed off, they can be added back into the soil to increase the soil's moisture content.
Cover crops help with weed and disease management. A dense layer of cover crops not only prevents sunlight from reaching weed seeds so they can't germinate and grow, but it also fights weeds for water and nutrients. Some cover crops prevent weeds from growing through allelopathy as well. Allelopathy is when certain biochemical cover crop compounds degrade and become toxic to or prevent seed germination of other plant species. Allelopathy can also help reduce bacterial and fungal diseases that damage cash crops.
Perhaps a more interesting use of cover crops is that they can assist with pest management. Certain cover crops can attract pests away from cash crops because they are a preferred source of food. Growers can then eliminate these pests when enough them are attracted to these "trap" type cover crops. Another way cover crops help with pest control is that some of them provide natural habitats for predators that prey on pests. Both are natural ways organic farmers can help reduce pests without using harmful chemicals and pesticides.
Overall, cover crops improve the farm habitat for wildlife. They provide a balance in the ecosystem without the use of chemicals to increase nutrients in the soil or to kill pests and weeds. Natural wildlife like birds start to come back and earthworms can be found aerating and providing nutrients to the soil. Cover crops are healthier for the Earth and healthier for us humans. And, I guess it all makes sense. If herbicides and pesticides are meant to kill, then how could they ever be good for growth in the long run? Plant more life to provide more life.
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