Margaret Krome: Wisconsin should invest in a cover crop incentive program

By Margaret Krome

Sometimes a good idea comes along that is sufficiently practical and addresses enough problems at once that it gains widespread support. One such is the incentive program launched in 2017 by Iowa’s then-Agriculture Commissioner, Republican Bill Northey, to incentivize farmers to plant cover crops by reducing crop insurance premiums by $5 an acre on acreage planted to a fall cover crop. Iowa has since enrolled over half a million acres in the program.

Cover crops aren’t a silver bullet, but they’re valuable. They have been shown to reduce nitrogen leaching, soil erosion and related nutrient runoff. Planted correctly, they increase crop diversification, soil health, soil carbon, water infiltration and climate resilience. Cover crops can reduce costs associated with herbicides and pesticides for individual farmers as well as improve their yields and profits by enhancing soil health. They can also save government spending by decreasing the losses associated with largescale flood damage to crops and reducing costs of repairing storm-damaged roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. As of the last agricultural census in 2017, however, only 6% of Wisconsin’s agricultural acres were planted to cover crops.

In 2019, Illinois set aside $300,000 annually for a program similar to Iowa’s, and Wisconsin was primed to follow suit last year. In early 2020, Wisconsin state Reps. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, and Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, introduced a bill based on findings from the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, supporting a Wisconsin pilot program funded at $200,000 annually. It unanimously passed agriculture committees in both chambers, the Joint Finance Committee and full Assembly, before COVID-19 sent the Senate home without voting on it.

Several groups now seek to fund it at double the original amount and adding a staffing position to administer the program, totaling $500,000 a year. This increase makes sense, based on witnessing the Illinois program, to which farmers fully subscribed in less than 24 hours this year. We should learn from our neighbors to the south and not knowingly frustrate Wisconsin farmers by starting the program too small.

There’s good reason to think that Wisconsin farmers are interested. A 2019 survey asked about the merit of creating a program like this, and two-thirds of farmers who had not previously planted cover crops said such a program would incentivize them to do so; two-thirds of those who had previously planted cover crops said that this kind of incentive would prompt them to plant them more frequently or on more acreage.

Cover crops save taxpayer dollars in ways beyond just reducing costs of road and other infrastructure repairs. They also help farmers manage wet soils, allowing them to plant crops in otherwise unfavorable conditions. In rainy 2019, Wisconsin farmers who couldn’t plant their crops filed for “prevented planting” crop insurance losses on 594,204 acres, valued at $269 million in potential crop production. But indemnities were only $131,181,500, leaving $138 million in uncompensated losses. Applying UW-Madison’s multiplier factor for Wisconsin agricultural income, those uncompensated losses caused a $486 million loss to Wisconsin’s economy. Also, acres not growing crops don’t need farm inputs; in 2019, seed and pesticides not purchased due to prevented planting added $77.7 million more in losses that could have been avoided, had more farmers planted cover crops.