James Pinsky: Cover crops: An idea rooted in sustainability

The wrong peer pressure can change you. It can change broccoli too.

The good news for us is we have the freedom to choose who our friends are, and barring pure stupidity, we spend our lives picking and choosing who we spend our time with so we can be happy, healthy and successful. Sadly, broccoli and its other leafy friends like the carrot, corn and even soy beans have no such freedom. Rooted only to the soil we plant them in, our food is only as good as the neighborhood it grows in. Soil quality matters.

“Who lives in your soil determines what your food tastes like,” said Ellen Polishuk, co-owner of the Potomac Vegetable Farms, during a lecture she gave at the 2015 Farm-to-Table Conference held last week in Weyer’s Cave.

Polishuk, of course is right, but what’s in your soil does a lot more than decide what our food tastes like. It decides how big, how fast and how healthy our food is. So, what is good soil? Well, good soil is a lot like a good home. It needs to not only sustain life but enrich it as well. Soil needs to hold water and nutrients for crops to feast on, fend off pests and weeds, seize and hold carbon and, of course,  serve as a filter to clean the water that flows through it into our watersheds. In short, it needs to be all the things we need our homes to be, safe, secure, rich in food and water and empowering.

As stewards of our land, we need to make sure we provide the very best home and the very best neighbors for our food. At Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District (LFSWCD), we specialize in making sure all of our natural resources – which includes us humans; have the best places to live. Like our homes and our friends, it’s not enough to give our crops a good start but to ensure we perpetuate our good soil choices year after year. One of the best ways to do this is to not only make sure we don’t lose our rich soil, but we improve it and one of the best ways to do this is by using a cover crop.

What’s a cover crop? According to Matt Kowalski, senior conservation technician specialist at LFSWCD, cover crops collect and store nutrients that could otherwise wash away with the rain and groundwater.

“They protect the soil itself from erosion – the living plants and residue of plant stems and leaves protect from wind and rain erosion, while the roots help hold the soil in place too, and they add organic material to the soil, increasing its tillage, loft, ability to hold water, and resilience. Cover crops help build soil,” he said.

Kowalski countered if cover crops aren’t used we lose soil and the nutrients in it. “Farmers literally lose some of their fields and must rely more heavily on working the soils and adding nutrients to grow crops there. And the soils and nutrients that wash away become water pollution – pollution in our surface waters like streams, rivers and lakes, and also in our ground water where nutrients like Nitrogen can become poison.”

What kinds of homes we give our food matters. Whether it’s a 3,000-acre farm or our backyard garden, making sure we have happy, healthy, sustainable soil as our food’s homes makes a difference.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.