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An ag wall crumbles

Farm groups don't come more mainstream than the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. That's not a criticism, it's not a compliment. It's simply my observation — based in part on visits to the farms of a number of association members — that the group values established practices which improve the bottom line of farming operations. Nothing fringy or extreme for the MCGA: like I said, it's mainstream.

So it was noteworthy, at least to me, when the group recently announced 12 farmer-led research projects on topics including cover crops and interseeding. My conclusion: if the MCGA is researching them, cover crops and interseeding have become mainstream — and that's a big change.

Two definitions might be helpful:

• Cover crops are grown primarily to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale (i.e., a cash crop).

• Interseeding refers to planting cover crops into still-standing cash crops such as corn or soybeans. (Interseeding comes in other forms and has other uses, too, but that definition suffices here.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when things like cover crops and interseeding definitely were not mainstream. Oh, some farmers valued and implemented them, but those producers were in the minority. The majority of farmers thought cover crops and interseeding were impractical at best, silly at worst.

It's no exaggeration to say there was a wall between the two groups, a very real difference in their farming beliefs and practices. Sometimes there was a we-respectfully-agree-to-disagree relationship between the groups. Sometimes, well, let's just say the groups exchanged snide remarks.

Who was right? Who was wrong? You'll need to decide that for yourself. One of my firmly held convictions is that there's no one-size-fits-all answer in modern agriculture. What's right for one farmer or farming operation may not be right for another.

I'll also say this: Twenty years ago, I thought cover crops and interseeding weren't all that useful in the Upper Midwest. Though I've always believed strongly in protecting soil from erosion and supported farming practices that do so, I just didn't see that things like cover crops made a whole lot of practical sense in our short growing seasons. (Further south, where longer growing seasons gave cover crops more time to develop, yeah. But here in the Upper Midwest, no, not so much.)

But that's changed. Considerable time, effort and research dollars have gone into developing new approaches and new technology that enhance the practicality of cover crops and interseeding in this part of the world. Additional efforts — including the research by Minnesota corn growers — will make them even more viable.

I'm a journalist, not an agronomist or soil scientist. I'm not smart enough to tell you — nor foolish enough to try — how cover crops and interseeding might fit your farm.

So I'll repeat what extension experts say about new farming practices in general: Keep an open mind. Evaluate a new option as honestly as you can. Ask yourself if it will add value to your farm over the next year, the next decade, the next 50 years.

A growing number of farmers, who have done that with cover crops and interseeding, think the answer is yes, or at least potentially yes.

The wall between farmers is still there. Fundamental differences remain in how various farmers and farm groups view things such as GMOs. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

But, in places, the wall is crumbling. That's a good thing.

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