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For the Sake of the Soil, Farmers Look Beyond Soy and Corn

Iowa farmer Jon Bakehouse embraces cover crops

Just outside of Hastings, Iowa, Jon Bakehouse and his family run Maple Edge Farm – 700 acres of soy bean and corn cultivation. And while his family has been growing these cash crops for five generations, Jon’s starting to do things a little differently for the sake of the soil.

“I’ve read No-Till Farmer magazine for years and one day I came across an article about cover crops. The more I read about cover crops, the more and more interested I got.” But Jon was really sold after attending a presentation on cover crops by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) at his neighbor’s shop. With support from the Walton Family Foundation, PFI helps farmers research, adopt and teach their peers about cover crops as a way to keep their soil and water systems healthy without hurting their bottom line. For about six years now, Jon’s been experimenting with cover crops – mainly cereal rye and alfalfa – as a way to keep nutrients in the soil and reduce the amount of fertilizer and weedkillers he uses on the farm, both of which carry large price tags and can pollute local rivers and streams.

“What you see above ground reflects what’s going on under the ground and in the soil,” he explained. “We took a winter trip to D.C. a while back, and our flight pattern on the way home took us over our farm. We saw all the fallow ground and in the middle of it was a patch of green, like an oasis. It was the cereal rye we had growing.” That was proof enough for him to keep going.

He jokes that cover crops have had a gateway effect on him. “They’ve opened a whole new realm of things I want to try.” Now, Jon is working with PFI to test varieties of soy and corn that mature faster, allowing him to plant more diverse species of cover crops that require earlier planting. He also wants to rethink the ideal time to sow soy and corn based on when they traditionally want to be planted.

While Jon admits that not all his experiments have been successful, he’s even more firm in his belief now than when he started that using cover crops is “the right thing to do.” For his community and all Iowa farmers to thrive for generations, Jon believes that business and conservation must converge. As he sees it, life – from feeding people to protecting the Gulf of Mexico from harmful pollutants – depends on soil. “If we don’t take care of it, we’ll have lots of problems,” he said. “And cover crops can help now.”