Why Your Menu Needs Cover Crops

Many are calling for chefs to embrace rotational crops, and serve the lesser-loved grains and greens on menus around the country.

What are rotational crops?

Crop rotation is the practice of growing different crops in the same area, in sequence. Each crop adds and takes certain nutrients from the land. By rotating the types of plants, soil can remain vibrant and restore itself of any nutrients and vitamins absorbed in the earlier rotation. Many call these additional crops “cover crops.”

“Cover crops act as a bank account for nutrients, returning the investment with interest when you turn them under,” explains Rodale’s Organic Life. 

For example, clover and kidney beans capture nitrogen. Brassicas (kale, Brussels sprouts, collards) chemically deter bacteria, fungi, insects and weeds. Crops like buckwheat grow in so thick, they “outcompete” weeds, earning them the name “smother crops.” 

How does crop diversity affect soil?

Recent research has demonstrated that multi-year, multi-crop rotations produce high yields for each crop in the rotation, control pests and weeds with less reliance on chemical pesticides, and enhance soil fertility with less need for synthetic fertilizers,” writes the Union of Concerned Scientists. Improved soil can lead to better water and nutrient retention, better drainage and some say can even help with drought and climate change mitigation.

For these reasons, rotational crop farming is a cornerstone of organic farming. By rotating crops, the harvests do the work that many other farmers rely on herbicides and pesticides for.

Wait, how do plants keep pests away?

Many pests can only live on certain types of plants. If a rotation includes a plant that a pest doesn’t like, the number of pests goes down, meaning less need for chemical pesticides. “Cover crops also encourage beneficial insects by providing flowers for a nectar source and foliage for shelter,” notes Rodale’s Organic Life.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states that “recent long-term research in the heart of the Corn Belt has shown that integrated weed control based on smart crop rotations can reduce the need for fertilizers and herbicides by 90 percent or more, while maintaining high yields and farm profits.” 

Is this how everyone farms?

Not anymore! Most farms today are monoculture—meaning, they only grow one crop. Growing the same plant over and over doesn’t let soil replenish the nutrients it may have lost.

Today, corn and soy make up half of all harvested acres in the U.S. These crops are often fed synthetic fertilizers that provide only select chemicals to make up for whatever nutrients lacking in the soil. Many believe that this tactic does not address soil health, which results in soil erosion and a greater need for pesticides.

Monocultures “account for more pesticide use—up to 81 percent of all pesticides sprayed in some years—and are the country’s biggest consumers of nitrogen fertilizer, which runs off and damages aquatic ecosystems,” James McWilliams writes for Forbes.

Thaddeus Barsotti of Capay Organic writes: “Someone once told me that good farmers feed the soil and let the soil feed the crops. As soon as you are feeding crops directly, you have a problem.”

Why doesn’t everyone farm rotationally?

Part of the issue is a lack of cover crop acceptance by chefs and consumers.

“‘Other’ grains—like triticale, oats, and barley,” explains grain farmer Klaas Martens in The Third Plate, play “a critical role in maintaining the health of the soil. Without a buyer, farmers can’t justify planting them into the rotations. Without planting them into the rotations, sooner or later the soil fertility declines.” 

As a wheat farmer, Klaas relies on rotational farming to keep his wheat healthy, rotating crops like buckwheat, barley, millet, and clover to replenish his soil. But most farmers don’t profit off their rotational crops, as diners rely on rice, wheat and other staple items instead.

“With limited American demand for local millet, rye and barley, 70 percent of Klaas’s harvest was going into livestock feed for chickens, pigs and dairy cattle. In general, Klaas earned pennies on the dollar compared with what he’d make selling his crops for human consumption,” writes Dan Barber in The New York Times. “And we were missing out as well, on nutritious foods that are staples of the best cuisines in the world.

“By creating a market for these crops, we can provide more value for the farmer and for our own diets, while supporting the long-term health of the land.”

Why should chefs serve rotational crops?

Celebrating rotational crops could start a new economy of local crop varieties.

“While few now remember it, a century ago at least 10 food crops were grown commercially in Iowa, including potatoes, apples, and cherries. Bringing back such crops, especially sought-after heirloom and specialty varieties, represents an opportunity to market foods that could be branded based on their place of origin and sold at premium prices,” writes the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In the last 100 years, 75 percent of all crop diversity has been lost, according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “This time frame corresponds roughly to the beginning of monoculture farming, which is dated back to 1901,” observes One Green Planet.

“Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species,” reports FAO. “Of the 4 percent of the 250,000 to 300,000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Only three—rice, maize and wheat—contribute nearly 60 percent of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants.”

Partly, these trends are the result of diners who don’t know how to prepare millet, rye, barley or alfalfa sprouts. Chefs can change that.

Chefs, Dan Barber told Sierra, “need to figure out how to cook with [cover crops], how do you make something not only edible, but also delicious. That’s how you create the incentive for the farmers to not only grow them but also harvest them.”

If farmers are encouraged to farm with cover crops, the food we grow will require less pesticides, soil will be fortified and less prone to erosion, which means toxic runoff will not hinder animals or humans, and diners and chefs alike will have a wide array of vibrant new flavors and textures to explore.

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