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Sustaining specialty food plots

By Staff | Sep 30, 2014

DEBBY CARSON, center, and Jane Berger, right, both of Sioux City, exchange cover crop information with Ajay Nair, an ISU Extension vegetable production specialist, during a program Monday on cover crops for vegetable growers in Sioux City.

SIOUX CITY – Cover crops are not just for corn and soybean growers.

Cover crops in grain farming operations have been proven to enhance soil preservation, which has piqued the interest of vegetable and fruit growers.

The demand for information among specialty crops growers is not surprising, said an Iowa State University vegetable specialist.

Ajay Nair, an assistant ISU horticulture professor, conducted a program on vegetable cover crops on Monday in Sioux City. The event was coordinated by the Woodbury County Extension office.

“We’re seeing this interest I believe, because of the way our vegetable growers are managing their programs in a very sustainable way,” Nair said. “They’re realizing (cover) crops are a perfect fit for vegetable growing.”

Benefits of cover crops for these growers are similar for row crops including curtailing weed growth, preventing soil erosion and recycling soil nutrients.

Cover crops can also be an important part of pest management strategies.

“Cover crops are a wonderful tool in our sustainability tool box – a perfect fit,” Nair said.

He said cover crops is being used a wide cross section of food producers.

Vegetable and fruit growers, he said, are gaining an understanding of the benefits and challenges of cover crops.

Nair said producers seeing cover crops at the forefront of working for sustainability.

“Here in Iowa we are blessed with great soil and high organic matter,” he said. “This is a good thing with cover crops – good for micros in the soil and good for crops.

“The indiscriminate production without plans for sustainability is becoming a thing of the past.”

Efforts on the federal level within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, Nair said, are helping producers understand cover crops’ uses.

“The name speaks for itself,” Nair said. “In Iowa, our vegetable production is done by the first killing frost in September to mid-October depending in the region.

“Once done, the land is fallow. If you don’t cover it, snow, wind or rain is all going to take away our good top soil.

“Planting a (cover) crop in the fall to protect this soil makes perfect sense.”

Nair said home owners with small backyard gardens are on the cover crop band wagon.

Frequent questions what can be planted and when.

Master Gardeners, community garden sponsors and schools are among others in the newly motivated spectrum of vegetable and fruit growers.

‘For those starting out on this new path to production sustainability,” Nair said, “producers must take a knowledgeable approach to assure success of their cover crop programs.

“The first thing he or she must do is, to know your exit plan for the crop when it’s done and to know how long you want the crop to be on the soil. If you don’t, it’s trouble.”

Growers need to understand the issues they are addressing with cover crops, such as breaking soil compaction or stemming soil erosion.

“This means selecting a crop with the needed duration of growth and its benefits in each situation,” he said.

Depending on soil needs, Nair’s recommends an annual or cereal rye grass, which establishes quickly and grows well to the end of the season.

He cautioned that consideration be given to whether or not the selected crop will interfere with an early planted vegetable crops and reconsider the initial seed selection.

More detailed cover crop information is available from ISU Extension, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Midwest Cover Crops Council and Iowa Learning Farms.

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