I do not like being late. But there I was, 20 minutes tardy, trying to quietly slip into the back of a breakout session at a soil health and cover crop conference in Omaha, Nebraska, several years ago, just after I started with Noble.
To be fair, I had left the previous session with plenty of time; but a business associate caught me in the hall with a question, so the panel discussion regarding cover crop supply chain issues would have to wait. More ideas are advanced by impromptu conversations in the lobbies, hallways and dining rooms of America than in the boardrooms. He had something to say, and I had the ears to listen.
When I finally entered the room, the voice of the panelist speaking elevated as he said, "We need organizations like the Noble Foundation (now the Noble Research Institute) developing new cultivar varieties!"
I stopped at the threshold of the bulky double doors. I didn't know the speaker. He didn't know me. Soon I would be the one in the hallway with a question to ask.
The man turned out to be Keith Berns, a fourth-generation Nebraska farmer, who is a leading authority on cover crops. Berns, along with his brother, Brian, began producing cover crop seed in 2010. Their venture blossomed into a company, and now Green Cover Seed produces enough cover crop seed to blanket 500,000 acres, according to The New York Times.
After the session, I asked Berns to expound on his proclamation. He noted that Noble should be at the center of the cover crop industry, "because, frankly, you are already there." He reminded me that we have one of the most popular cereal rye varieties, Elbon rye (which I had never heard of and is Noble spelled backwards).
I thought to myself, we are a reputable researcher and breeder of forages, which in reality are cover crops. Elbon rye, which in 1956 became our first plant variety release, is his company's No. 1 seller. Perhaps we are missing something. Do we really hold one of the many tools to soil health enhancement and just haven't tapped our potential? I returned to Ardmore and posed these questions to our team.
Today, I'm proud to say that this year, the Noble Research Institute and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research launched a $6.6 million, national research initiative to improve cover crop varieties. The initiative will bring together representatives from the seed industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), multiple land-grant universities, and an existing Legume Cover Crop Breeding Team. This research promises to propel cover crops into the next generation.
Likewise, we also convened industry leaders, government agencies, private organizations and agricultural producers this spring to discuss how we could modernize the nation's supply chain for the large-scale delivery of cover crops. The result of these discussions was the formation of the Cover Crop Coalition, which has the express goal of having 150 million acres of agricultural land utilize cover crops in the next 10 years.
This is the beginning of the second great era of cover crop usage. The first was several centuries ago when cover crops were commonly used by our founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Today's effort will combine the traditional virtues of this practice with today's technology and advanced breeding practices. This is the moment for agriculture to delve deeper into cover crops and embrace the opportunities and, yes, even the challenges that come with cover crop management.
We must continue to invest our resolve and resources to make cover crops a permanent fixture within agriculture practices. We must build momentum so we can restore and rebuild our soil. We cannot delay action, and we cannot be late. You know how much I dislike that.