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Before we take a closer look at cover crops, it’s important to understand one of the biggest issues that they help to address. Soil erosion is a major problem in agriculture. An estimated 24 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost because of destructive farming practices every year. Half of all the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. This not only reduces fertility of the land and farmer’s profits, but the eroded soil also runs off and pollutes rivers, lakes and other water systems. Degraded soils are also less able to hold onto rainwater, which can worsen flooding and create cycles of erosion, drought, and desertification. The cost of soil erosion, organic matter decline, salinisation, landslides and contamination is estimated to be €38 billion annually for the EU alone.

Every previous agricultural civilization has collapsed due to land and natural resource mismanagement, and the history of such civilizations is a good reminder that we need to protect our natural resources. The most effective way to control erosion is to maintain a permanent cover on the soil surface.

Cover cropping is hardly new but has found new applications in the modern revival of regenerative agriculture. Some of the earliest known agricultural texts make reference to crop rotations and planting certain species that were not intended for harvesting. An example being Virgil’s volume (70 – 19 BCE) “Georgics,” a tome on all aspects of agriculture, where he recommends alfalfa, clovers, and lupine as cover crops in the off season for increased wheat yields. Since then, and all around the world, there is evidence and current practices of planting that is primarily intended to improve the soil and growing conditions for other crops.

What are “Cover Crops?

The simplest explanation of cover crops is that they are selected plants that are grown in an agricultural field to “cover” the soil in between the seasons when a cash crop is grown there, and are not meant to be harvested. “Covering” the soil however, is only a small part of their benefits, so let’s explore some others.

Advantages of cover cropping

There are many advantages to planting cover crops in agricultural fields, both for the health of the soil and for the farm business so let’s separate them by those two categories.

Advantages for the soil