Nick Helland, a participant of the Cover Crop Business

Nick Helland, a participant of the Cover Crop Business Accelerator program shows business development and marketing specialist, Jennifer Simpson the seed cleaner he was able to purchase with assistance made available from the program. (Photo: Kriss Nelson/Iowa Soybean Association)

Cover Crop Business Accelerator gives farmers the gas they need to boost their cover crop businesses

January 20, 2022 | Kriss Nelson

After a successful first year in 2020, the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) teamed up again to continue the Cover Crop Business Accelerator project in 2021.

The Cover Crop Business Accelerator, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, was created to support the growth of cover crop adoption in Iowa by helping to build the infrastructure needed to support that growth.

The two organizations partnered with Walton Family Foundation to provide financial and technical support to farmers with cover crop-related businesses focused on growing seed for cover crop use and/or doing custom seeding in their area.

Both ISA and PFI recognize that as cover crop adoption has accelerated, it has occasionally surpassed seed availability, or farmers have struggled to find someone to apply their seed.

As these businesses grow, they can help to meet those infrastructure needs. In 2021 the project paid 11 participants a $3-per-acre seeding incentive on about 21,000 acres and provided an equipment purchase incentive of up to $2,400 to each participant.

“In 2021, these 11 businesses completed 29,781 acres of custom seeding of cover crops, produced 378 acres of cover crop seed, and invested more than $240,000 in equipment for their cover crop business,” says Heath Ellison, ISA senior field services program manager.

Getting down to business

A large part of the Cover Crop Business Accelerator program involves working with a contracted business development and marketing specialist.

Jennifer Simpson, with Simpson Sales Solutions, worked with participants throughout the year, assisting them with all aspects of their cover crop business, including sales, marketing, branding, networking and more.

Simpson says working with farmers and the Cover Crop Business Accelerator has been a highlight of her career.

“One of my favorite initiatives spanning the past several years has been leading Iowa’s Cover Crop Business Accelerator project,” she says.

Simpson’s work includes extensive business diagnostics to educate, equip, and empower emerging “agri-preneurs” with business, marketing, and sales strategy.

“I also provide goal-setting support, offer ongoing business growth guidance and serve as a connector amongst the growing list of cover crop industry leaders,” she said.

Simpson starts the process with an on-farm visit, which helps Simpson dive into all aspects of the farm business.

 “I ask a ton of questions with the desire to learn the different working parts of the business,” she says.

Simpson looks specifically at management and financials, sales and marketing and industry relations.

“I look at their strengths or at any concerns I might have in a segment of the business or concerns they might have,” she says. “There could be something missing or something they desire to add into their organization.”

After analyzing various aspects of the farm, Simpson provides farmers a business snapshot report.

“This helps them see where they have been and where they want to go,” she says, “It helps us decide where they want to focus their energy and efforts.”

Simpson remains on board, coaching participants of the Cover Crop Business Accelerator.

One area is networking.

“I can coordinate connections to other people to help them follow through on action items to implement,” she says.

At the end of the growing season, Simpson reviews the strategic goals set with the farmer to see what worked, what didn’t and what needs more focus for the following year.  

“We can always reference those goals set for the prior year and keep track of their growth year over year,” she says. “We can see how much those businesses are expanding in their ability to cover more acres across the state of Iowa in cover crops.”

In the first year of the Cover Crop Business Accelerator, participants are seeing exponential growth.

“In some instances there has been the growth of 30-50% for established businesses and new businesses sometimes doubling, if not tripling business with the support we are offering,” she says.

Nick Helland, ISA farmer-member and Cover Crop Business Accelerator participant, said the program helped his family’s farm to purchase a seed cleaner.

Helland and his brother Erik clean and sell cover crop seed.

The Hellands have been no-till farming since the 1990s and raising cover crops for more than 15 years.

“We have seen the benefits they have to our soil health and seed control, and we think cover crops bring a component to our operation that fits,” says Helland.

Helland says they wanted to expand their cover crop acres for some time now but felt confined due to seed costs and program assistance availability.

“We have considered the idea of raising some rye seed for the last couple of years,” he says. “But we have had difficulties some years getting a hold of enough rye seed at an economical price. When we saw this program, it was a logical catalyst; it was the nudge we needed to jump in and do this.”

Having the seed cleaner, Helland said they will raise some of their own rye seed and work with another participant of the Cover Crop Business Accelerator program to be a contract grower for them.

“We can hopefully have some Iowa-grown rye seed to sell for cover crops next year,” he says. “We now have a better idea what seed costs  are, and we’re figuring out an economical way we can put cover crops on more acres. For me, this has dove-tailed with things we have done in the past and where we wanted to go forward.”

Helland appreciates the opportunity to participate in the Cover Crop Accelerator business.

“Jennifer forced us to think through all of the business steps and also had the accountability to stay diligent on these things,” he says. “She also helped build some connections within the industry and help lay foundations that may be fruitful in the future.”

More than the incentives, the coaching Jennifer provides has been instrumental in growing the cover crop business infrastructure in the state, Ellison says.

“I would argue the support Jennifer provides to the businesses is more valuable than the financial incentives the program provides,” says Ellison. “Jennifer has done an excellent job of engaging our participants and meeting them where they are, allowing her to customize her support of each business to their individual needs.”

ISA and PFI are continuing the Cover Crop Business Accelerator project in 2022 and are looking to add at least 10 additional farmers to the project this year.

Farmers interested in growing their current cover crop-related business or starting a cover crop-related business in 2022 can contact Ellison at 515-334-1045 or for more information.