Cover Crops: It’s What’s for Dinner
Bringing indispensable plants to the table.
Cover crops—legumes, grains and other plants grown exclusively to fix nutrients in the soil and allow it to rest and regenerate—are a staple part of a crop rotation in a sustainable farming system, one that doesn’t require chemical inputs. In recent years, many U.S. farmers have moved away from cover crops; planting them can be a short-term economic loss for farmers because these crops are not grown to be consumed. But at Stone Barns, we’re starting to experiment with ways people can eat some cover crops, which just might lead to an uptick in their use again.
Today, 82 to 94 percent of farms rotate their crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the integration of cover crops into that rotation happens on only 3 to 7 percent of farms; the practice fell by the wayside with the advent of industrial agriculture, which prizes a short rotation of corn and soybeans for maximizing output, but means a loss for soil health.
While at least 90 percent of a cover crop must be left on the ground to work its way into the soil, in the remaining 10 percent lies new opportunity for culinary use. In recent years, our farmers began to harvest the tops of milky oats, which are grown in summer and fall to rest beds and deposit calcium. The milky oat tops, which represent about 2 percent of the crop mass, are dried and sold as an herbal tea in our Farm Store and at our Farm Market. The remaining oat grass is then mowed, the straw insulating the soil and slowly decomposing over the winter. Field pea, a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil, is planted in late summer; before the first frost hits, its sweet shoots can be harvested for salads. The rest of the crop is left to die off and insulate the soil above and below ground.
Our hope is that as more people learn how to use and enjoy parts of these indispensable cover crops, we can move toward a food system built on an appreciation of the whole farm—of all the elements required to create an ecologically resilient farm. And by experimenting with ways that might encourage more farmers to use cover crops, we aim to balance economic imperatives with ecosystem requirements.