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Forever Green Initiative emphasizes varieties of continuous living cover crops that thrive in harsh winter conditions and provide a harvestable yield while contributing to soil and water conservation.

March 27, 2024

5 Min Read
A silhouette of barley crops with a sunset in the background
BARLEY COVER: Continuous living cover crops, such as winter barley, may soon blanket 75% of the Minnesota’s agricultural landscape through the Forever Green Initiative. Farm Progress

by Lauren Wangsness

Minnesotans may soon see more of the likes of winter barley, hybrid rye, winter camelina and woody perennials like elderberry and hazelnut on the landscape as a University of Minnesota-developed Forever Green Initiative aims to cover far more of the state’s agricultural landscape with continuous living cover crops by 2050.

Forever Green specialists Colin Cureton, Matt Leavitt and Sienna Nesser joined Dakota County conservationist Ashley Gallagher to shed light on the initiative’s progress and its potential impact on sustainable agriculture during the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ annual meeting.

The four participated in a panel discussion, titled “Help Minnesota Put Down Roots: Opportunities for SWCDs to advance Continuous Living Cover,” to bring attention to the innovative efforts of the Forever Green Initiative.

This groundbreaking project is dedicated to the development and promotion of continuous living cover crops, emphasizing winter-hardy annual and perennial species that provide the ecosystem service benefits of cover crops but with harvestable yield that adds to growers’ bottom lines.

The Forever Green Initiative primarily focuses on developing winter-hardy crops that can be implemented into existing Minnesota agricultural systems. The process includes creating varieties that can thrive in harsh winter conditions and provide a harvestable yield, all while contributing to soil and water conservation.

Currently, Forever Green is actively developing 15 crops, which assist in reducing erosion, building soil health, reducing nutrient pollution, increasing diversification and minimizing tillage.

During the presentation, panelists discussed each of the 15 developed crops, ranging from perennial to winter annual and native woody crops. Among the crops highlighted were winter barley, winter camelina and elderberry.

Winter camelina

Winter camelina is an exceptionally hardy winter annual oilseed that stands out for its high yields and elevated oil content despite its small seeds. This versatile crop is used in various ways, including the production of oil and meal for biofuel and feedstock.

Winter camelina also serves as a valuable pollinator habitat, promoting agricultural biodiversity. The primary variety, “Joelle,” is not only high-yielding but also notably the most winter-hardy variety.

Winter camelina is most successful following small grains, dry beans, early soybeans and silage corn, and it proves to be an appropriate choice for protecting fields and preventing weed growth.

There is considerable interest in this crop by major oil-producing companies to produce low-carbon biofuel.

Winter barley

Winter barley is a versatile winter annual cereal grain and emerges as the earliest small grain to reach maturity, making it an asset in agricultural cycles for double cropping and relay cropping.

Recognized for its higher yields, reduced susceptibility to diseases and lower input requirements, winter barley proves to be an efficient and economical choice for farmers. Its ability to provide fall and spring soil coverage further contributes to soil health and erosion prevention.

Winter barley is not the strongest winter-hardy crop, and its hardiness can pose a challenge in certain regions, especially in northern Minnesota.

Winter barley finds multiple applications in various markets, including the malting industry, livestock feed (with a nutrient profile similar to corn), forage production and more. The “MN Equinox” variety stands out as the most winter-hardy option, showcasing the ongoing efforts to enhance the resilience and adaptability of this crucial winter annual grain.

Elderberry

Elderberry, a native perennial berry, stands as a vigorous shrub boasting an extensive shallow root system.

With a well-established market for its berries and flowers, elderberry currently holds enormous potential in the Midwestern agricultural landscape. Berries are rich in antioxidants and immune-boosting properties and often are used in various human health products such as juices and dry powders.

Despite these benefits, elderberry currently faces limitations in breeding and market expansion. Available varieties often involve wild crosses, and the planting process typically occurs in the late fall or early spring, with a yield emerging two to three years from the initial planting to the first harvest.

The ongoing need for breeding and the development of varieties underscores the potential for further growth and enhancement in the cultivation of this berry.

Looking ahead

To foster the adoption of these innovative crops, Forever Green has introduced the Economic Environmental Clusters of Opportunity (EECO) Program. This program offers financial and technical assistance to growers who raise winter camelina, winter barley, hybrid rye and Kernza intermediate wheatgrass.

Designed to support early on-farm adoption, the program provides ecosystem service benefit payments to growers as well as a network of technical assistance for the planting and management of the crops.

There are additional risk-management payments up to half the cost of production for crop and market failures until crop insurance becomes a viable option in the future.

Through EECO, Forever Green is actively working to encourage the widespread adoption of these continuous living cover crops, working to ease the worries growers may have regarding implementing these crops.

“We develop technology, move it out into the world for use, and then shift policy,” says Nesser, a Forever Green commercialization specialist.

Forever Green aims to work closely with growers to nurture this three-step process.

Panelists presented a recent study that the Forever Green Initiative completed the Putting Down Roots Report compiled by Ecotone Analytics and Friends of the Mississippi River, which examines the proposed impact of the increased adoption of cover crops by 2050. The specific idea of this study was to examine implementation of these crops in Minnesota, promoting a system of enhancing current corn-soybeans rotations with winter annuals and perennial grains.

The study concluded that increased adoption would lead to reduced nitrogen loss, decreased soil erosion and an increase in on-farm net returns.

Despite these positive outcomes, Minnesota’s current continuous living cover score indicates a low adoption rate of cover crops statewide. However, the initiative is optimistic about the future, aiming to cover far more of Minnesota’s agricultural landscape than currently with CLC by 2050.

Looking ahead, Forever Green panelists expressed optimism about the future of sustainable agriculture in Minnesota. They emphasized the importance of continued research and collaboration between farmers and researchers to further the adoption of Forever Green crops.

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