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French farmer talks cover crops at St. Olaf

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 06/20/2013 10:36 AM

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NORTHFIELD, Minn. -- French farmer Frederic Thomas spent time working on a Minnesota farm 30 years ago, and he was back in the states recently to learn and share.

Thomas, who is a private farmer educator in addition to farming, brought about 50 French farmers with him. They made stops across the state.

On May 31, Thomas spoke to a small group at St. Olaf College.

He's from central France, where the soil is poor quality. The soil is sandy on top of waterproof clay. There is a lot of irrigation, as most of their precipitation typically falls during winter. They plant their summer crop in April, harvest in October and plant their winter crop in October, harvesting in August. It sometimes is possible to double crop, Thomas said.

The winters aren't as cold, and the summers aren't as hot as southern Minnesota, he said.

Thomas doesn't irrigate his 300 acres. His aim is to improve his soil's structure, increase its water holding capacity and build organic matter. He cooperates with another farmer and together they run around 1,800 acres.

He brings organic matter to the field from town. He picks up leaves and grass clippings. At first the biomass was free; then, he purchased it. Most recently, he has installed places for people to drop off leaves and clippings and he composts them.

He planted his first cover crop in 1996. It was buckwheat. He has planted cover crops annually since.

Cover crops are another way to till the soil, Thomas said. They develop and maintain soil structure. They are good for all types of climate conditions.

Thomas doesn't plant just one cover crop at a time. He learned from a friend in Brazil that a mixture of cover crops is best as it addresses a variety of concerns.

The French government is pushing farmers to plant cover crops, but Thomas said that is the wrong approach. The best cover crops are grown without government incentive when farmers see the value and plant the crops on their own.

How does a farmer measure the value of a cover crop? It's measured in a variety of ways, he said. There's the recycling of nutrients, improvement in soil structure, weed management and food for biological activity.

Cover crops must be a priority, Thomas said, and farmers need to know what they are looking for in a cover crop before seeding. Oats, for example, are a good way to protect against broadleaf weeds.

He advocates a mixture of species for maximum biomass diversity. It also reduces seed cost, as more and less expensive seeds are mixed.

In France, genetically modified crops are banned and the conservation agriculture folks say too much glysophate is used to kill cover crops. Thomas said like many things too much is a bad thing, so he looks for other ways to kill cover crops.

"We think cover crop is the only good way of farming," he said.

Soybeans typically aren't grown in his region, Thomas said, but a variety of other crops are. On his farm and his friend's farm they have 12 crops this year. The crops: Wheat, clover, triticale, alfalfa, oilseed rape, buckwheat, corn, barley, Brazilian oats, conventional oats, hairy vetch and rye. They like to add a new crop every year, he said.