(The Center Square) – A University of Missouri researcher is working to preserve soil in farm fields, resulting in more stable grocery and agriculture prices.
Rob Myers, director of the university’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture, received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the largest amount ever received by the university from the institute.
The project aims to double the number of fields growing cover crops to 40 million in seven years. Farmers from Maryland to Oregon and from Minnesota to Texas will be introduced to planting various crops to protect and improve the soil when other crops aren’t being grown.
“You may not notice it as much until spring when it starts to green up, but we hope to see more of those fields in the future because that will be better for our soils and our overall food system,” Myers said in an interview with The Center Square.
In Missouri, cereal rye, clover and legumes are often planted immediately after fall crops are harvested and then harvested before spring planting.
“It’s covering the soil during those times of year when our summer crops aren’t growing,” Myers said. “So if you think of our soybeans and corn, they’re only out there for the summer and then we have seven to eight months of the year when there’s nothing growing. So we use these cover crops to protect and improve the health of the soil from fall to spring.”
Currently, 10% of Missouri’s 10 million acres of farm fields grow cover crops.
Myers will be collaborating with 14 university faculty, 38 scientists throughout the nation, 12 universities and 17 states. Three seed companies will be involved along with the American Seed Trade Association, three USDA research locations and three USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Centers.
“I think the big reason to do this for society as a whole is that it’s making our food system more resilient,” Myers said. “So if we have a bad drought like we had last summer in Missouri or in 2019 when we had really wet weather, it helps make our fields perform better and keep the crop yields up. It will make the soil more resilient and that’s something that will help keep our groceries more affordable.”
Last year, Myers received a $25 million USDA grant, the largest ever awarded to a faculty member, to help Missouri farmers adopt climate-smart practices.
The amount of seed to grow cover crops will need to double during the project, along with distribution to farmers. The project will help educate farmers on new varieties of cover crops and determine which crops are best for various regions of the country by examining geography, weather conditions and soil types.
“Just in the last two years, we’ve seen big food and agriculture companies encouraging farmers to plant cover crops,” Myers said. “Cover crop acres are increasing on farms, but there’s a lack of seed for farmers to be able to use. So this project also is about helping to produce more seed for planting.”