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Virginia farmer experiments with cover crops

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Stuart Lane plants cover crops for the benefits they provide, from making the soil healthier to keeping it from washing away in a heavy rain.

BOWLING GREEN, Va. (AP) — Sometimes, Stuart Lane’s fields are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

The Caroline County farmer never knows what he’s gonna get when he experiments with cover crops. Those are grasses, clovers or even vegetables that he plants in fields after harvesting the crops that pay the bills — corn and soybeans, barley, rye or wheat.

Cover crops aren’t grown for what they might produce, because Lane doesn’t harvest them. He plants them for the benefits they provide, from making the soil healthier to keeping it from washing away in a heavy rain.

Some crops actually pull nitrogen from the air and put it back in the ground — saving money on fertilizer — and others benefit the bees, earthworms and wildlife they attract.

Plus, they look really good on meandering fields, especially this time of year when the farm landscape looks barren after soybeans have been cut and corn chopped.

One field on State Route 207 was so vibrant, with robust stalks of crimson clover, that people actually stopped to photograph it.

“You would have thought you were in The Wizard of Oz,” he said about the teeming colors. “Birds were chirping and flowers were blooming.”

‘Just the right soil’

Lane and his wife, Kathy, farm about 1,800 acres from Ruther Glen to Thornburg. They own about 300 acres and rent the rest.

They’re part of the reason Caroline County is the second-leading producer of corn and soybeans in Virginia. Accomack County on the Eastern Shore ranks first.

In 2016, Caroline farmers yielded 2.18 million bushels of corn from 16,000 acres. They also harvested 921,000 bushels of soybeans, planted on 21,600 acres. Those numbers are from a survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“We have just the right soil for raising cash grain crops like corn, wheat and soybeans,” said Mike Broaddus, the Virginia Tech Extension agent in Caroline.

Plus, the county’s location, between Richmond and Northern Virginia, makes markets accessible for whatever crops are produced in the rural locality. Development from both urban areas has made its way to Caroline, but not to the degree as in more populous counties such as Spotsylvania and Stafford.

“Caroline has escaped that so far,” Broaddus said. “We’re right in the middle, just out of range of being heavily populated to where the grain farmers can continue to make a really good living.”

‘A class by himself’

Broaddus brags that Caroline County “has a lot of good farmers, but Stuart Lane is in a class by himself.” Lane is always looking for ways to raise production and lower costs, and the cover crops seem to be the answer to both.

Lane, 62, lives off Dry Bridge Road on land that has been in his family for generations. He jokes that he’s farmed since he was 6, when his grandmother gave him and his brothers 50 tomato plants each and a challenge to see who could grow the most.

He started seriously farming in 1977, and for most of this century, saw the benefit of covering the ground with another crop after the main one was harvested. In the beginning, he planted a single species — barley, rye or wheat — on fields after corn and soybeans were cut.

About five years ago, a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service introduced him to multi-species cover crops. The Hanover-Caroline Soil and Water Conservation District administered the program, which provided Lane enough free seeds to plant different species of cover crops on 5 acres for three years.

Lane started planting three, four or even five species in one field. A typical mix included white icicle radishes with canola plants that yield yellow flowers, Austrian winter peas, barley and that beautifully colored crimson clover.

He and his wife regularly scouted the fields, making notes of bare patches or spots where gullies might form — and adjusting the program to compensate for deficiencies. They often dug up a shovel full of dirt, thrilled to see the way the dirt crumbled in their hands instead of being compacted — meaning water, fiber and underground life forms could flow through easily.

They also were eager to find earthworms, one of the surest signs of healthy soil.

“Any time of year, we’re out there looking for them,” he said, adding how much fun the exercise is.

“Well, he thinks it’s fun,” his wife said.

‘The green revolution’

Over time, Lane found that the cover crops enriched his land to the point that it produces higher yields on the crops he harvests for cash.

“This is not something that happened overnight,” he said, “but we’ve increased about 10 percent a year.”

His highest yield has been 70 bushels per acre of soybeans and 190 bushels per acre of corn. As a comparison, Culpeper County had the state’s highest averages for both crops, according to the national survey. Culpeper farmers averaged 173.8 bushels per acre of corn and 52 bushels per acre of soybeans.

Lane said he probably wouldn’t have tried the cover crops if not for the funding provided by the national grant and the help from local conservation officials. But now that he’s tried them, he’ll keep using various mixtures to see how much they improve the environment, as well as the land from which he and his wife get their sole source of income.

The more lush the fields look in the process, the better.

“We call it the green revolution,” he said.

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