Winter rapeseed sprouting in a field. Image credit: iStock

Brief: Just 5% of US farmers plant cover crops to capture carbon, says Purdue survey

October 18, 2022

  • Nearly six in 10 US farms surveyed (57%) currently plant cover crops on their farmland, according to according to the latest Purdue University/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer report. 
  • Top reasons among survey respondents for planting cover crops are to “improve soil health” (37%) and “improve erosion control” (33%).
  • Just 5% said “carbon sequestration” was a motivator for planting cover crops.

Why it matters:

Each month, Purdue’s Ag Economy Barometer calculates data from 400 U.S. agricultural producers’ responses to a telephone survey. Based on these reports, the number of farms in the US planting cover crops is rising. In September 2020, 40% of farms surveyed said they intended to plant cover crops that fall. In September 2022, that number jumped to 57%.

The numbers also match other data that indicates cover cropping as a practice on US farms is rising. Estimates say that cover crop plantings increased to  22 million acres in 2021, up 43% from the 15.4 million acres planted in 2017. 

Purdue’s Ag Economy Barometer for September 2022 also found that 40% of producers who planted cover crops said they have done so for five years or less. Another 28% have done so for 10 years or more. Most of these producers only plant cover crops on a portion of their farmland.

What hasn’t changed over time are producers’ motivations for cover cropping — those remain about soil health. This point is hardly surprising, since soil health can impact yield and therefore farms’ bottom lines.

Sequestering carbon to help fight climate change is still a low priority. Part of this is likely because financial incentives for carbon capture aren’t very enticing for many growers right now. It can take years to realize financial gains related to carbon credits. Carbon measurement systems are also expensive, and the payback of an annual carbon credit is still relatively low. 

Incentivizing carbon markets and bringing down the cost of measurement tools will be necessary to motivate more producers to cover cropping where carbon capture is concerned. In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see the numbers rising, regardless of the reasons behind them.

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