Cover crops are good for the environment; but are they profitable too?


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Pat Socha talks about green farming techniques – and their profitability.

This story first ran May 6 in City Pages’ print edition.

On a Friday morning, Pat Socha (pronounced ZA-HA for the uninitiated), drives a tractor out from its storage area to the front of his farm. Pulled behind it is a piece of green machinery used to plant seed in the various fields he farms in an area around Edgar. An Edgar school bus sits on his property; he drives the school bus for the district in between farming. 

The fields he will plant look a little different than most of the farms around it. To an outsider, like myself, it looks much more pleasant. Another farmer might shake his head, Socha explains.

What’s the disparity? Socha, a fourth generation farmer, is one of a small but growing number of farmers who are practicing environmentally favorable farming practices. Since 2017 he has been no-till planting and using cover crops. He’s starting to have an influence on his fellow farmers in the area too; some have started doing what he is doing; others have hired him to work on their lands, planting seeds with a special machine that costs around $30,000.

Driving down a county road outside of Edgar, the difference between the two fields farmed with different methods is stark. On one side is the green grass of a field using cover crops. On the other side, in perfect opposition, is a dirty brown field. For an outsider, of course, the field covered in rye and clover among other plants looks a lot nicer, and is nicer on the environment as well. The brown fields don’t look as nice by comparison. But to a farmer, that field is just right. That’s the old way of thinking.

Socha is no hippie. He does care about the environmental aspect of what he’s doing, but he’s frank with me when I ask him. The money and time savings are his primary concern and what got him started engaging in these practices four years ago.

That’s the selling point, but it’s still brushing up against old paradigms. A new county program is hoping to change that. The county is now going to seek funding in the next state budget to fund a pilot project that would incentivize farmers to reduce their pollution levels. If successful, it could expand to the entire state, changing how farming is done in Wisconsin.

The pilot project


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Pat Socha shows the soil from a no-till field.

What’s happening right now is that farmers using manure cover on bare fields is resulting in plenty of nutrients — namely phosphorus — running off into streams such as the Fenwood Creek. That phosphorus makes its way to fish reservoirs such as the Big Eau Pleine. That in turn leads to an increase in algae, which starves the water of oxygen. That leads to less oxygen for fish, and leads to fish kills. Right now organizations are spending a lot of money to oxygenate the water to make sure that doesn’t happen. The last major kill occurred in 2009.

The pilot project would help prevent that. If approved and funded by the state, the program would provide real financial incentives to farmers who reduce their pollution. Under the proposal, which is expected to cost $600,000 per year, farmers who reduce their phosphorus levels to under three pounds and acre would receive $3 per year for the first three years of reduction, and $10 per acre per year of maintenance afterward. That increases to $30/$15 for under two pounds per acre, and $40/$20 for less than one pound per acre of runoff.

The point of the incentive, says Marathon County Conservation Program Manager Paul Daigle, is to increase adoption of these practices to 60-70% of the farmers in the Fenwood Creek area. Doing that would spark adoption on its own following that. The project statewide would cost $350 million, a bargain considering the cost of upgrading one municipal water treatment plant to treat phosphorus can run up to $250 million. The impact per dollar spent is enormous compared to individual plant upgrades.

The goal is to go from 20-30% participation to 70% of farmers in the Fenwood Creek region engaging in these practices. That’s the tipping point where adoption should take off on its own, Daigle says. 

The Fenwood is the perfect place to test this out, Daigle says, because the Fenwood Creek area is very representative of Western Marathon County, with small to medium farms, Daigle says. Plus, there is a lot of water quality data on that watershed, so measuring changes is possible. 

But it turns out, a lot of incentives are already baked into the practices. They already are profit-friendly. Make no mistake about it; a small farm is a small business. Socha is aware of that more than anyone. He is an early member of EPPIC, a group formed to share practices between farmers that are environmentally sustainable. Farmers teaching farmers is far more effective than just the county saying “Hey farmers, do it this way now.”

“I think the government expert coming to work on the farm that was successful in the 40s and 50s, a lot of the information came about that way,” Daigle says. “Farmers started to get their info from other sources. Also, the realization that farmers learn best from other farmers. The experts are the people trying to make a living at this.”

Though EPPIC farmers began hosting Common Ground events in which farmers share their knowledge of practices such as no till and cover crops. It’s Wisconsin’s largest community-based group. 

Socha points to a planting machine in his barn — it cost about $30,000, no small chunk of change. (The county also owns a similar machine that farmers can rent out to try out no-till, Daigle says.) He was definitely nervous when he bought it, Socha tells me, but it has already paid for itself. He not only saves money planting his fields: less than $30 per acre versus up to $50 using a traditional chemical-based approach. It also saves a lot of time. The cover crops prevent water runoff, and keep the soil clumpy and crumbling under his fingers as he digs it out to show me, just like it’s supposed to. That’s healthy soil, and the root structures help keep it that way.

It actually saves a lot of time too, Socha told City Pages. For one thing, you’re not constantly tilling up rocks that need to be picked. 

So what does he do with that free time? Socha is paid by several neighboring farms to work their fields, saving them the use of pesticides and other chemicals as well. It’s extra revenue for Socha and for the other farmers it’s cheaper than chemicals. (Something I learned: There are still some chemical applications, but far less than if they’d just went the straight chemical route.)

In fact, last year he planted about half a neighbor’s soybeans for him. This year, that same neighbor wanted all his soybeans planted no till. “It costs him so much less,” Socha says. When he and his brother first experimented with no-till planting on half their soybeans, they found the same thing. Less costs, no difference in yields. It was convincing. 

Matthew Oehmichen of Short Lane Supply and a member of EPPIC, shared similar comments about the business vs environmental argument — that the two aren’t necessarily at opposites. 

“It isn’t just about the water and environmentalism aspect of it though, to me, it is about creating a viable business plan, creating better logistics,” Oehmichen says. “If I have soil that is degrading, that means I have a vessel that needs more and more inputs to create yield because it doesn’t have the ability to: hold water, drain water, maintain nutrient amounts, have trafficability (stuck equipment, delayed applications of manure and planting seeds).”

The challenges

So if those practices are cheaper and more time-efficient — well, what’s stopping every farmer from adopting them? Even large CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are starting to use them. If anything is an endorsement of the practices being profitable, it’s the large business ag companies using them.

Two things: Cost and momentum.

Even if it is a business expense, buying the machines to no-till plant is pretty steep. $30,000 is a good chunk of change. And especially for small farmers, it’s a pricey risk.

The other is paradigmatic. As Socha points out, many farmers would look at the field we’re standing in as I interview him, with its healthy soil structure, as “dirty.” Chemical and seed companies often see it the same way. A “clean” piece of acreage with brown fields is the ideal they’re looking for.

Socha says he’s gotten some pushback from seed companies, but they’re starting to come around too. If it’s good practice for the farmers and helps keep them profitable, that means the seed companies keep their customers too.

That’s the piece the incentive structure is meant to help. Providing an additional financial incentive for farmers to take the leap might help more see the long-term financial gains. Once they’ve been in the habit of farming that way, and realizing the financial benefit, the thinking goes, the habit will stick.

The pilot project has been more popular politically — or at least received little if any pushback — than other regulation-type suggestions. Helping small farmers is far more politically palatable than imposing regulations on them.

Are there downsides? Sure. According to a fact sheet from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, no till techniques don’t work well on sandy soil or soil with poor drainage. They mention the cost and suggest renting equipment or sharing with neighbors. Grass weed and slug problems can be harder to control. Very wet or very dry soils can be especially challenging for no till.

And, according to a study from Iowa State University, only farmers using cover crops for livestock grazing realized positive returns.

The numbers of farms in Wisconsin shrink and consolidate — the state lost 4,961 or 7% of its farms between 2012 and 2017 (the next survey is due in 2022). Mid-sized farms similar to Socha’s are where the losses come from. Most new small farms are entering the organic/Community Supported Agriculture arena. Those survive by value-adding: selling products as an experience (ie Pizza on the Farm) or organic/grass fed products that command a higher price.

That might not be possible for a grower like Socha. It makes more sense on his end to save costs up front through techniques such as no-till. And by adding value to production — he can employ those techniques to other people’s fields and bring in revenue that way.

Socha would be the first to tell you. Environmental practices can be profitable practices.

The online version of this story includes a study from Iowa State University that was provided to City Pages after publication.