May 24, 2022
Extreme weather demonstrates need for more cover crops in almond

Greetings from Project Apis m. (PAm)! My name is Rory Crowley, and I am the new director of habitat programs, managing Seeds for Bees (SFB). I live and work in Chico in the Northern Sacramento Valley. For the last seven years, I have helped operate our family’s ranch of almonds and walnuts.

​Although my first year as an almond grower was mostly about learning in the school of hard knocks in the orchards, I quickly jumped into the science of “soil health.” I learned about the vast potential of cover crops, and that fall we planted our first batch of seed.

Like many of you, Billy Synk coached me on my very first cover crop planting of PAm’s brassica mix. We had soil problems, which we were trying to correct, and I also saw how important it was to give back to the bees that worked so hard for us in the almonds.

These areas – soil and bee health and productivity – marked my next seven years on the farm. Cover cropping became a foundation to our family’s commitment to agricultural stewardship. Ever since that first year of planting cover crop, I just can’t seem to shake how vital this practice is to our system and to the bees. If we put life into the soil, we will get life out. This is true for both the trees and the bees.

Over the years we have had huge successes and abysmal failures with cover cropping. As I have observed this year, for those who planted cover crops, there were more failures than successes, through almost no fault of those who planted.

Cover crop planted in this orchard yielded very little viable pollen in Merced County, California. Photo: George Hansen

When planting cover crops in California, each year is different. One year, mustards might have a phenomenal germination and explode to 6 feet with thick stock and great floral resources, but the daikon looks no bigger than the baby carrots we get at the grocery store. Other years, you may have daikon the size of your forearm, and the mustards look like toothpicks. These annual changes in germination and stand are common, but in my experience, they seem to be exacerbated in flood and drought cycles.

Regardless of these typical kinds of annual changes in seed, germination and stand, this year seemed to be one for the books. Farmers who planted cover crops were yet again at the mercy of varying and extreme weather systems. For many of us, this caused havoc in our plans. Even in my short time farming in the Central Valley, I’ve seen a wide array of drought and flood. After taking our almond cover cropping program to yearly plantings, I started planting cover crop in our walnut orchards just to keep the soil in place after extreme flooding eroded many metric tons of topsoil the year before.

This year, California experienced two sizable atmospheric rivers, one of which was coupled with a bomb cyclone. Then, the spigot was shut off. In just one year, we got flooded and had extreme drought. This kind of weather variability can be intensely frustrating for farmers planting cover crop.

Growers up and down the Central Valley, regardless of water allocation, irrigation system type and soil type, faced huge upsets after setting seed in the ground. Some planted right before an atmospheric river, only to watch their seed be taken away in a gully washer. Others planted after the second atmospheric river, only to have not one more drop of rain until the end of February.

Furthermore, some growers who got their seed in the ground in the month of October still didn’t have viable pollen until after the almond bloom. Frustrations abounded.

Newly planted almond trees with cover crop that bloomed after almond bloom; in the background, mature almond trees after petal fall and leaf out. Photo: George Hansen

Despite the headaches, I continue to be impressed with the strong resolve of our California producer communities. There were successes. Challenging years like last year should never discourage us from planting more cover crops, nor should they discourage new adopters from starting. Indeed, it should garner even more of a resolve to plant because of the positive benefits we see in just a few years of implementation.Our SFB free seed program was designed to give growers two years of free seed in a tiered manner. The first year, growers get $2,500 off their seed purchase, and the second year, growers get $1,500 dollars off their seed purchase. After that, though there is no free seed, we encourage growers to take advantage of our wholesale, nonprofit discounts and free shipping.

The main reason we designed the program this way is because the majority of growers planting cover crops see positive changes in the soil, bees and/or crop after just two years. Although the changes may be slight at first, we still see them. This is exactly how it worked for me when I started my own cover crop program years ago. I saw huge increases in bee activity, and my soil was clearly improving.

Every year, we send out a participant survey that asks a vital question: “Will you continue to plant cover crops after your two years of free seed in the Seeds for Bees program?” In the five years we have conducted the survey, 90-95% of respondents claimed they would continue to plant cover crop after SFB participation. In fact, even after this hard year, 98% of respondents said they are going to plant next year.

There is no stronger metric for us at PAm. This demonstrates that after two years of planting cover crop, growers see so much value that they take on this practice themselves with their own dime and on their own time. This was exactly my own experience my first two years of planting, and with SFB mixes, no less!

All this to say, we farmers don’t give up because of a bad year; we dig in. As we all know, we cannot change the weather, we must adapt to it. We must adapt to changing markets. We must adapt to changing regulations. For millennia, farmers have been adapting and thereby surviving and providing for others. We, in California, are no different. We have proven time and time again that no matter what is thrown at us, we will overcome. This is the essence of the California farmer, and Seeds for Bees runs on the same spirit. Let’s dig in and get more seed in the ground this year.

As the new director of habitat programs, I am here to help growers adapt and overcome. I am a California farmer, and we are resilient. Resiliency comes from learning from each other, and supporting each other in our community, just like honeybees. Each hardship brings learning and new solutions, and I am excited to be in this with you.

If you are asking whether you should continue planting cover crops, or if you should plant for the first time, the answer is an overwhelming YES. Droughts and floods are two of the primary reasons we should plant cover crops, to keep soil in place when atmospheric rivers hit. We need deep taproots to get water into the ground so we that can keep it in the ground where it belongs until we need it again. We are here to help you continue or start having a strong cover crop program. Let’s get to work.

– Rory Crowley, Project Apis m.

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