The Central Virginian: Turning rich soil into revenue, and a healthier climate

THE CENTRAL VIRGINIAN, DAVID HOLTZMAN

Farmers in Louisa County are finding that enriching their soil has benefits for their animals and crops, but also for the climate.

Each year numerous farmers plant cover crops on their land between growing seasons or if they’re preparing ground to plant for the first time in a while. Some choose to enroll their land in a federal conservation program, which provides financial support for the cover crop or another practice that strengthens the soil.

That’s what Louisa farmer Dustin Madison did with 10 acres he owns on Gold Mine Road in the central part of the county. Last summer the acreage was covered with mullein and some other wildflowers as part of a prescribed plan to rejuvenate the soil. Now Madison has planted grass on the land for his cattle to graze.

“As a farmer we would say this is 10 acres of weeds, and it really is,” Madison said. “But pollinators really like them. You’ve got a cover crop to hold [the soil] together, so the hard rains don’t wash it all down to the creek, and something green that will flower to attract those pollinators. I need to turn this into grass, but I never could have done that on day one, because it’s sandy. It needs some time to put the life back in it.” 

Seventh District Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger visited Madison’s farm last August. She was there to learn more about the cover crop and to tout her Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would reward farmers for embracing what she called “climate-smart practices.”

The bill would create a way for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to connect landowners to carbon credit markets, which have drawn interest from food producers like McDonald’s and Cargill eager to show their commitment to sustainability. These markets could be a source of revenue to farmers, who would be paid for using techniques like cover crops, no-till planting and planting trees. All three are valued for their ability to sequester carbon in the soil, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Spanberger also introduced the Healthy Soil Resilient Farmers Act in 2020 to ensure federal loans are available to farmers who want to implement conservation practices, and allow them to delay payments on the loans for up to three years.

Besides the 10 acres in a cover crop, Madison has another 110 acres nearby enrolled in a separate federal program that pays him a rental fee for planting a variety of native trees and shrubs. A previous owner of the property grew pine trees as a crop.

“It’ll be a carbon sink and a place for deer, wildlife and pollinators,” he said. “You can’t do a lot of agricultural work on it, because it’s really rolling and sandy. This is kind of the best use.”

If he grew pine trees on the site, Madison would have to wait 20 years to harvest them and reap a financial return. By putting his land in the federal conservation program, he will be paid much sooner.

The land with the cover crop is what Madison is focused on, as he prepares to raise 15 to 20 cattle on the property. Dana Bayless, a soil conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Louisa, said many farmers plant a single cover crop, but planting multiple cover species has more benefits for soil biology.

“The more species we can store in the soil, the better it is,” Bayless said. “If you look at nature, nothing is a monoculture.”

NRCS can help pay for as much as 75 percent of the cost of planting a cover crop, with the farmer responsible for the rest. The idea is that once farmers see the value of the soil practice, they will keep doing it after they no longer have help from the federal agency.

As eager as Madison was to show off his cover crop when Spanberger visited last summer, he was even more excited to see the grass growing early this spring.

“There will probably be more organic matter right here than there has been in 40 or 50 years,” he said. Everything will grow better and handle stress better.”

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