For more on the why behind CLC, link to the “making the case for CLC” section of our website.
Annual row crops in the Upper Midwest leave the ground mostly bare for two-thirds of the year and have replaced native prairies and woodlands that, until the mid-1800s, covered the land all year, supported diverse wildlife, and built rich soils. Below ground the more transient roots of crops that grow during a single season have replaced the naturally deep, dense mesh of perennial roots. These changes allow large volumes of soil and nutrients – valuable farm inputs – to wash into lakes and streams and contaminate groundwater, damaging aquatic ecosystems and threatening human health. Soil health is reduced and native plant and animal habitat is lost, including critically important pollinators. Our diminished land and water resources are increasingly vulnerable to weather extremes.
Continuous Living Cover farming addresses issues inherent to our current agricultural system, which is bolstered by well-established supply chains, policies, and dominant agricultural narratives supporting a small number of crops. These issues include:
- Intense production of a few crops on many acres;
- Constrained economic opportunities;
- Negative environmental impacts.
With CLC, farmland stays in production, making good, year-round use of soil, nutrients, water, and solar resources. CLC farming introduces a greater diversity of crops and livestock. Water quality improves; stream flow is moderated; soil health improves and is sustained. Native wildlife species have more suitable habitat. New economic opportunities can develop for farmers and their communities. With CLC practiced widely, we contend that our land, water, farms, and communities will be more environmentally and economically resilient.
There are many types of CLC crops and systems and many ways they can be combined to meet the interests of farmers and landowners.
- Summer annual crops can be rotated with winter annual crops that are grown as either a cover or cash crop harvested in spring.
- Perennial grasses and forbs grown as hay crops and in pastures support the return of livestock to farms and have environmental and economic benefits.
- Grazing of cover crops within row crop acres can also be a way to re-integrate livestock.
- Tree and shrub crops produce fruits, berries, nuts, wood, fuel, and fiber.
- Herbaceous and woody perennials create biomass for fuel and industrial products.
- Further expansion of CLC farming will come from new varieties of perennial grain crops that lead to products similar to high-demand commodity crops, but with more positive impacts on soils, water, and wildlife.
- Perennial crops and annual crops can be grown in multi-year rotations and their locations in fields and on farms can shift to achieve more cumulative CLC acres, adding up to landscape-scale change.