Heath stands near a stream.

Heath Ellison, ISA senior field services program manager, is working with Iowa soybean farmers to increase cover crop acres by supporting business-focused infrastructure. (Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Unique partnership grows Iowa cover crop opportunities

October 22, 2020 | Heather Lilienthal

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are working together to not only grow the number of planted cover crops, they’re planting the seeds to grow cover crop-related businesses. It’s a unique approach helping farmers find new revenue opportunities while contributing to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goal of achieving 12 million cover crop acres.  

 “We sat down and wondered how we could reach 12 million cover crop acres and ask farmers to plant cover crops at the same time as harvest. How could we possibly assemble a large army to do this in a short window of time?” said Sarah Carlson, PFI strategic initiatives director. “To reach those acres, we needed more activity and infrastructure.”  

Simply put, more cover crop seed production and application services are needed.  

“We saw opportunity to help farmers improve profit while providing critical infrastructure for cover crop growth,” said Heath Ellison, ISA senior field services program manager. “We also wanted to create and encourage more local resources to allow more access to these services. That will help get more cover crops on the ground.”  

ISA and PFI assembled a group of ten farmers who were also involved in some aspect of seeding cover crops and, through a grant, determined incentives to help them grow those cover crop service efforts.  

“We contacted farmers who were doing this as a side business and we presented them an opportunity to grow by offering business development and equipment incentives,” said Ellison.  

The program incentives were offered for achieving a targeted increase in planted cover crop acres. The project also included loan interest reduction program on equipment purchases.  

One of the most powerful incentives was working with a contracted business development and marketing specialist. Jennifer Simpson with Simpson Sales Solutions provided a variety of services, ranging from marketing and advertising to even naming a business.  

Dean Sponheim farms in north central Iowa. He’s a Pioneer seed dealer and offers customer cover crop services through his business Sponheim Sales and Services. He has benefited from the work with Simpson.  

“I’ve been farming for 40 years and been a seed dealer for 25 years and the cover crop business is a different animal,” he said. “I’m learning how to look at the business from a different perspective, from marketing and advertising to improving sales efforts. We’re definitely evolving.”  

Other program participants range from a 17-year old looking to start a cover crop business to a group of four farmers who owned drilling equipment and started an application business.  

Ellison and Carlson are pleased with the year’s results. They anticipate reporting measurable growth in seed production and custom-applied acres.  

“We were most pleased with the benefits of the marketing and business planning. That may prove to have the most value and long-term impact,” said Ellison. “Financial incentives helped, but it is the planning that will drive them to grow in the future.” 

The growth in local resources offering cover crop seed, sales and application will lead to growth in cover crop acres and develop additional business opportunities for farmers. Ellison and Carlson hope the momentum continues.  


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