P.E.I. potato farmers turning to wide variety of cover crops, survey says

A survey by the P.E.I. Potato Board found a growing number of potato farmers on P.E.I. turning to a wide variety of cover crops to improve their soil and reduce erosion, and even generate some cash along the way.

'I think the ultimate goal is every field that can be effectively covered, should be'

Ben Visser holds some of the tillage radishes growing as a cover crop in a field in Vernon Bridge, P.E.I. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

A survey by the P.E.I. Potato Board found a growing number of potato farmers in the province turning to a wide variety of cover crops to improve their soil and reduce erosion, and even generate some cash along the way.

"The main goal of the survey was to get a benchmark for where we're at on cover crops," said Ryan Barrett, research and agronomy specialist with the P.E.I.Potato Board.

"So that, as we move forward, we can use that as a starting point and hopefully set goals to increase it every year."

Barrett said the 2019 survey found that about 40 per cent of the acres that were in potatoes last year had cover crops planted in them after the harvest.

"That was in a somewhat challenging fall, so we're quite happy with that," Barrett said. "We'd like it to grow a little bit more every year, but that's quite good."

Researchers from the P.E.I. Potato Board examine a field of mixed cover crops in Vernon Bridge, P.E.I. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Barrett said growers reported that about half of the acres that were tilled in the year before potatoes also had a cover crop put on them, leaving fewer fields with exposed soil in the wintertime. 

"The numbers there were even stronger than I think we had expected, which was very encouraging," Barrett said. 

"It means the growers are learning from their neighbours and they're seeing what's working on their own farms and then putting that into practice."

Visser said this field, which includes sudangrass, is mowed a couple of times over the growing season to build a strong root system and then left standing for the winter.  (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Barrett said the kind of cover crop depends if they are going in before or after potatoes, as well as where on the Island they are being grown.

He said in eastern P.E.I., where the potato harvest is usually over by Oct. 15, there is more time for a cover crop to take root, such as winter wheat or winter rye, that can be harvested the following year. 

The day after the potatoes were harvested, winter wheat is being planted in this Visser field in Orwell Cove, P.E.I. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"Other parts of the Island where maybe they're digging a little bit later, and it's a little bit cooler, and they don't have a long period for those cover crops to establish," Barrett said.

"Your list of choices is fairly small, so there will always be some fields that don't get a cover." 

Other benefits

Barrett said growers are also choosing to plant cover crops that will not be harvested.

"For things like tillage radish or oilseed radish, or just spreading barley and oats on a field, that just comes at a cost," Barrett said. 

"So it is a cost that most growers now, I would say, see that as an investment. It's an investment in their fields. It's an investment in their soil health and their erosion control."

Barrett said growers also use oats and barley, pictured here, to help cover the soil, even though they don’t re-grow in the spring so will not be harvestable. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Barrett said the trials the potato board are doing are helping to make the case to growers of the value of cover crops.

"We're trying to quantify what is the yield improvement following cover cropping, what is the improvement of soil organic matter, what is the decrease in pest pressure," Barrett said. 

"If we can put some good data behind that, then it's a lot easier for growers to say 'Well, it's worth 50 or 100 dollars an acre to put this cover crop on.'… I think the ultimate goal is every field that can be effectively covered should be. I think that's the hope and that's the plan." 

'More and more results'

Ben Visser said his family's potato operation is putting more effort into cover crops.

"We're at least double, triple more than we did before, it's becoming a bigger and bigger thing for us and for a lot of farmers," said Visser, farm operations manager for G.Visser & Sons, based in Vernon Bridge, P.E.I.

"Trying to get better soil organic matter and build structure in the ground and keep a good base on top that's nice and green."

In a field in Vernon Bridge, Visser has planted a mix of cover crops including buckwheat, mustard, oats, tillage radish, oilseed radish and sudan grass.  (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Visser said he follows closely the research on cover crops being done by the potato board.

"It's a benefit for us to know that there's science behind what we're doing, I guess is key," Visser said.

"I'd say the acreage and percentage will keep growing every year as we see more and more results."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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