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Organic Corn and Sorghum get Boost from Cover Crops

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This post is for all of you who’ve laughed when I inquired at farmers’ markets for organic corn.  It’s for all of you who told me “nobody” grows corn organically, at least not in East Tennessee.  Take a look at this cornfield.
Rye Grass and Hairy Vetch as Cover Crops for Cornfield
You say it doesn’t look like corn.  You‘re right.  You see, it’s not time yet for planting the corn and sorghum that will grow in this field.
Flowering Lupine in Field Where Corn will Eventually Grow
For now, the field is bursting green with rye grass and hairy vetch.  These two cover crops are inviting to insects (those “pests” held in disdain by conventional farmers), and they choke out most of the other plants that might be considered weeds.  The pretty white flowers you see are lupine, another potential cover crop.
Field of Rye Grass and Hairy Vetch
This cornfield in progress is being watched and studied carefully by researchers at the University of Tennessee’s Organic Crops Unit so they can help farmers grow corn organically.  Researcher David Butler, PhD noted that the grass and legume are a good combination to prep the field for what comes next.  A large drum-like machine will roll-kill these cover crops.  The UT Assistant Professor described, “The rye biomass will break down more slowly so it can help suppress weeds even after it’s died, whereas the vetch because it’s got a lot of nitrogen, will break down pretty quickly, but it will provide the nutrients  for the following crop. They’re complementing each other in this mixture as a cover crop.”
White Lupine Flower
Butler said the corn and sorghum will be directly planted after the cover crops are crimped and laid onto the ground.  He said,  “So it’s an organic no-till system. When you think of no-till systems, typically they’re using herbicides to prevent weeds.  Here we’re roll-killing the cover crop and using that to prevent weeds.”  A farmer adopting this system would avoid the large herbicide expense of conventional corn farming.

When buying organic foods, what’s in it for consumers?  Aside from concerns about protecting the natural environment, consumers can look to organic farming for foods without pesticide residues.  

Added Butler, “For you as a consumer, most studies have shown fewer pesticide residues  in organic systems, which is what you’d expect since we’re not using those synthetic pesticides. So I think that’s a big draw for most consumers in the marketplace.”

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