A central Nebraska farm is tapping into a growing national interest in cover crops, which were popular in organic circles but a rarity among mainstream row-crop producers.
Green Cover Seed in Bladen is selling cover crop seed mixtures to farmers across the nation, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. The company supports 14 employees, about half of them family members of brothers Keith and Brian Berns.
"We talked for several years about trying cover crops but never got around to it," Keith Berns said. "Seed wasn't easy to get. It's one of those things we just put off."
The brothers finally started experimenting with the crops in 2008, after hearing discussions about growing rye or radishes to cover and condition soil. They liked what they saw, and ordered more the following year.
They sell the seeds in mixes to mimic the biodiversity found in nature. The brothers still grow soybeans and corn, but income from the seed business has eclipsed the farm. They grow some of their own seeds and contract with farmers in numerous states to grow more.
"This year we'll do enough seed for about 500,000 acres," Keith Berns said.
Their success is a sign of the growing interest in cover seeds across the United States. Farmers generally don't plant cover crops to harvest. Instead, they're planted for a laundry list of benefits including stopping soil erosion from wind and water, improving soil health, cutting fertilizer costs, holding in soil moisture and reducing runoff that can pollute water.
The idea behind cover crops is that growing something in the soil as long as possible builds up an ecosystem underground for microbes and insects. No-till farming keeps those ecosystems undisturbed. When the plants die, they add organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
Some of the plants can also be used as forage for cattle and other livestock, but then they're technically not considered cover crops.
With growing concerns over climate change, farmers have a new reason to plant cover crops: They capture carbon.
The National Research Defense Council released a report this month documenting how cover crops can suck carbon pollution from the air and help save water by preventing it from evaporating.