Becky Langer-Curry

Finding Productivity and Profitability with Sustainable Cover Crop Management

With today’s global challenges of climate change, population growth and limited arable land, coupled with tightening margins putting pressure on growers’ bottom lines, there’s never been a more important time to deliver on the promise of sustainable agriculture. Reasons like these are why farmers like Trey Hill of Harborview Farms, part of the ForwardFarming network, are defining not only what sustainability means for farming now and in the future, but also showing what sustainable farming looks like in practice.
Farmer Trey Hill of Harborview Farms in Maryland
Farmer Trey Hill of Harborview Farms in Maryland
Farmer Trey Hill of Harborview Farms in Maryland

In this interview with Hill, a fourth-generation farmer from the Chesapeake Bay area, we learn how Harborview Farms combines farming techniques such as cover crop planting with innovative agriculture technology to achieve high productivity and quality crops while positively impacting the environment.

Q: You’ve described yourself as an “environmentalist.” Where does that passion for the environment come from?
A: I’ve always been concerned with the environment. Just growing up fishing, hunting, swimming, being on the boat, hiking – I’ve always had a connection with nature, but it’s part of being a farmer. So, it’s been a really natural transition for [Harborview Farms] to put forth a great deal of effort to become more sustainable, more responsible; it’s been a very organic transition into this style of farming. We’ve done it in a lot of ways.

Q: How has this passion influenced your philosophy and approach to farming?
A: What we’re trying to do is look at farmland not just as a commodity but more like a canvas on which we can create something that’s maybe a little more unique…with cover crops and soil health and trying to really recognize what’s going on underneath the plants – really get into the root system and the biological activities in the soil. By viewing everything as a relationship and viewing it as a holistic approach, we’re able to grow high-yielding corn, high-yielding soybeans, high-yielding wheat, but also do so in a way that cares for the ecology of the entire system.

Becky Langer-Curry, Project Manager, North America Bee Health & ForwardFarming
Becky Langer-Curry, Project Manager, North America Bee Health & ForwardFarming
Becky Langer-Curry,
Project Manager, North America Bee Health & ForwardFarming

Q: Where do cover crops come into play as part of your “holistic approach”?
A: Harborview Farms has been planting cover crops for over 20 years – long before many of our peers. We’re 100-percent cover cropped. We’re about 97-percent no-till. We’re about 90-percent planting green. Right after the fall harvest, our team is actively planting cover crops, which might include any mix of wheat, barley, rye, radish, clover, rapeseed, lentils, mustard, African cabbage, depending on the circumstances. Planting early gives the cover crop ample time to grow and establish roots before it goes dormant in the winter. This helps maximize the benefits to us, our environment, and ultimately our crop.

Q: What types of partnerships and farming technology are part of your cover crop program?
A: We’re collaborating with the University of Maryland, USDA, National Corn Growers Association, Bayer, and we’re putting test plots in all our fields. Many of these studies are aimed at helping develop cover crop management tools for farmers in our region. By better understanding the effects of different seeding methods, and studying water, temperature, and nutrient differences between cover-cropped and non-cover-cropped fields, farmers will be able to manage their cover crops more effectively.

Technology is a big part of that effort. For example, we’re taking satellite imagery while we’re in a current drought and viewing the effects on water holding capacity, not only through sensors in the ground, but also by getting pictures of the fields every day.

Our soil is in better shape than it’s ever been before. It’s part of the evolution of utilizing technology and collaboration which has enabled us to change the way we farm in a very positive way.

Trey Hill, Harborview Farms

Q: What tangible effects have you observed as a result of your cover crop program?
A: By building healthier soils, we’re seeing lots of positive agronomic impacts. Whether it’s reduced runoff, better nutrient retention, or even this year we’re learning about drought tolerance; all of these effects help us be more productive and profitable, particularly in challenging years. When we had a wet spring, [our holistic approach] made planting easier. We’re having a dry summer [in 2018], and it’s giving us better drought tolerance. And we’re able to verify that through technology. These benefits also extend to the wildlife habitat around us. We’ve observed more songbirds, more ospreys, more deer and other wildlife in the fields.

Q: So at the end of the day, what does “sustainability” mean to you?
A: We talk a lot about being sustainable and trying to achieve sustainability, but we also view it as being responsible. By being responsible we want every decision we make to be one that has education and data behind it. Sustainability is always going to be a moving target. As we get better analytics, we get better technology, that bar is constantly moving for me. It’s not a race that I’m going to finish. It’s something that is a lifelong endeavor of constant change and constant evolution to become more sustainable given greater knowledge.

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