Cover Crop Leadership Lab Takes Root

With help from the McKnight and Walton Family Foundation, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Food Lab have launched the Cover Crop Leadership Lab (CCLL), a peer to peer group for farmer led organizations, which aims to increase cover crop use throughout the Midwest.

Farmer facing programs that connect groups of farmers in one place, to the social and environmental goals of the corporate customers who buy the commodities they produce, are central to the work the Food Lab supports. One of the key challenges for the companies is finding organizations that work with farmers directly and have the capability to support change on the ground. These organizations are effective in helping supply chain stakeholders see through the eyes of a farmer and help identify the incentives and investment needed to share cost and risk with farmers adopting new practices. These organizations also support farmer capacity-building by empowering farmers to learn from and with each other. There is a gap between farmers saying, “Well, hell if you paid me more I would turn my heifers upside down and paint their toenails pink.” And companies saying, “Sustainability is a win-win, it will make you more efficient.” These organizations bridge this gap.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is this type of organization. PFI is farmer-based and seeks to create healthy soil, healthy food, clean air, clean water, resilient farms and vibrant communities throughout Iowa. The PFI model authentically embraces farmer knowledge and wisdom as a core driver of change. The grassroots model of farmer led research has brought together over $1.3 million dollars in funding from food and beverage companies and government match cost share resulting in 112,026 acres of cover crops and diverse rotations on the landscape.

Sustainable Food Lab has supported company partners to work with PFI to launch cover crop programs and programs that increase crop rotation diversity, adding small grain, in rotation with corn and soy. These programs are showing concrete positive impact and providing multiple benefits to farmers and companies.

But farmer led organizations like PFI are hard to find or build from the ground up. Farmer networks exist in many different forms across the US and globally. What’s missing is the capacities within these networks to bridge these farmer-company relationships. With help from the McKnight and Walton Family Foundation, PFI and the Food Lab have launched the Cover Crop Leadership Lab (CCLL). The goal of the CCLL is for participants to learn new skills, build leadership capacity and engage with larger supply chain initiatives. Building on the structure and format of the Food Lab’s professional development community for Food & Beverage sustainability employees-The Impact Lab, CCLL provides outside resources to participants and encourages peers to share their experiences and learn from one another.

The introductory CCLL cohort held its first in-person meeting in December in Ames, Iowa where they were able to initiate their work as a group and join PFI’s Cover Crop Boot Camp, an event providing farmers with both technical skills and communication skills to adopt and encourage others to use cover crops. The cohort is comprised of 15 participants spanning across the Midwest (IA, IL, NE, KS, SD, MN, IN, OH).

Already the conversations have been rich around the challenges of working with absentee landowners, making data collection meaningful for farmers, and changing how data is presented to farmers to be more farmer led than “expert researcher” led. During the coming year participants will have monthly phone calls and will meet in person for additional trainings and conversations with supply chain partners.

If you’re interested in learning more please contact Kaitlin Sampson

Sustainable Food Lab

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