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Organic and conventional farmers differ in their perspectives on cover crop use and breeding

  • Sandra Wayman (a1), Lisa Kissing Kucek (a2), Steven B. Mirsky (a3), Victoria Ackroyd (a3), Stéphane Cordeau (a1) (a4) and Matthew R. Ryan (a1)...

Abstract

Cover crops play an important role in agricultural sustainability. Unlike commodity cash crops, however, there has been relatively little cover crop breeding research and development. We conducted an online survey to evaluate: (a) the perspectives of organic and conventional farmers in the USA who use cover crops and (b) the specific cover crop traits that are important to farmers. We recruited participants from both organic and conventional agriculture networks and 69% of respondents reported that they farmed organic land. In addition to demographic data and information on management practices, we quantified farmer perspectives on four winter annual cover crops: (1) Austrian winter pea, (2) crimson clover, (3) hairy vetch and (4) cereal rye. Overall, respondents represented a wide range of states, farm sizes, plant hardiness zones and cash crops produced. Of the 417 full responses received, 87% of respondents reported that they used cover crops. The maximum amount farmers were willing to spend on cover crop seed varied by farmer type: 1% of conventional farmers versus 19% of organic farmers were willing to spend over US$185 ha−1 (US$75 acre−1). Organic and conventional farmers differed in terms of the reasons why they grew cover crops, with organic farmers placing greater value on the ecosystem services from cover crops. More organic (63%) than conventional (51%) farmers agreed that participatory breeding was important for cover crop variety development (P = 0.047). Both groups shared strong support for cover crop research and considered many of the same traits to be important for breeding. For the legume cover crops, nitrogen fixation was considered the most important trait, whereas winter hardiness, early vigor, biomass production and weed suppression were the most important traits for cereal rye. Our results illustrate common interests as well as differences in the perspectives between organic and conventional farmers on cover crops and can be used to inform nascent cover crop breeding efforts.

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Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: mryan@cornell.edu

References

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