Campaigning For Cover Crops

Sarah Carlson has a favorite t-shirt.

“We came up with ‘Don’t Farm Naked, Plant Cover Crops’ as a way to spark some playful discussion about a serious agriculture issue—bare soil more than six months of the year on a majority of Iowa’s farmland,” Carlson says.

The tongue-in-cheek, screen-printed slogan offers real advice Carlson (MS ’08 sustainable agriculture, crop production and physiology) hopes more Iowa farmers choose to follow.

Carlson is the Midwest Cover Crop Research Coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). She’s taken her message on the road speaking at hundreds of field days on PFI member farms and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach workshops.

Carlson first joined the organization’s staff in 2007 as its research and policy director. “A cover crop is a plant that covers the soil between cash crop seasons,” says Carlson. “Here in Iowa we need a good balance of cool season plants opposite our warm season corn and soybeans to be able to cover the soil a longer period of time. We have negative externalities when we don’t have plants covering the soil five to six months of the year.”

PFI holds about 200 events each year and collaborated on 42 research projects with 65 farmers in 2014. Carlson says the organization, in its 30th year, brings together farmers interested in conducting scientifically rigorous field trials and open to sharing on-farm research results with others.

PFI has grown to nearly 3,000 members and diversified to include all production systems.

“We provide opportunities for farmers to share information with each other about research happening at their farm. Cover crops has become really popular among our membership and beyond,” Carlson says. “Last year alone we were able to reach 13,000 people at 70 events about cover crops in which farmers taught other farmers how to do cover crops successfully.”

Carlson earned degrees in biology and geography at Augustana College before serving a stint in the Peace Corps. She lived in the southern highlands of Ecuador in South America serving as an agricultural business and extension volunteer for more than two years.

“Farmers are the same no matter where you are at. Some are early adopters and some are not. Most prefer to learn from their peers and fiddle with new ideas each growing season. I’m doing very similar work in Iowa today except in Ecuador I worked with a potato, corn rotation interseeded with squash,” Carlson says.

She credits her mentor agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft (’80 agronomy) with helping her learn to talk with farmers.

“Mary is a fantastic adviser and has influenced much of my work,” Carlson says. “I learned about PFI because of Mary and learned how to interact with farmers. I learned how to be humble and ask good questions.”