NC State Extension Adds New Conservation Agronomy Specialist

Despite the known benefits, cover crop use in North Carolina hovers around 14% of crop acreage. The complexities of cover crop species, timing and cash crop rotation equate to a matrix of options with hard-to-quantify results. But climate-smart practices like cover crops and reduced tillage pay dividends when resiliency matters most.

As part of the Farmers for Soil Health national cover crop initiative, the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association is funding a new North Carolina State University Extension position in conservation agronomy. 

Jeff Chandler is the research coordinator for the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association.

“There are two main objectives of the Farmers for Soil Health grant awarded to the N.C. Soybean Producers Association – technical support for cover crop practices and enrollment assistance for the cover crop cost-share program. The Extension system in North Carolina is second to none in the country and a great way to get research-based information out to growers on cover crops.”

A tractor plants cover crops on a North Carolina farm.

Menker Joins NC State Extension 

Austin Menker recently joined NC State Extension’s team to produce educational content and provide technical assistance to agents and growers on cover crops and other climate-smart agricultural practices. The position, funded for four years, is designed to consolidate and improve the flow of field research information on sustainable practices like cover crops and reduced tillage. 

Menker says that cover cropping has seen lower adoption compared to low or no-till systems in North Carolina, likely because of time and labor.

“Reduced tillage can be beneficial to the land and farmer. It’s actually a time-saving practice. But cover crops are different, at least initially. Adding a new system is an increase in cost, time, and knowledge. You have to respect those factors.”

Austin Menker walks a newly planted cover crop field of oats.

Incentives for Cover Crops

To boost cover crop adoption, the Farmers for Soil Health program offers incentive payments to corn and soybean growers for both existing and new acreage grown with cover crops. The goal is to add 25,000 new cover-cropped acres in North Carolina over three years.

Menker will have strong knowledge of this program, but also other cost-share programs available so the growers have the information needed to make more robust decisions for their production situations. 

“Farmers quickly see that cover crops can often improve both cash crop and environmental outcomes, but there can also be negative agronomic implications from cover crops if they are not managed correctly.  Implementing a reliable and economically viable program can be a significant hurdle,” Menker said. “Providing incentives is a good way to boost adoption. But after a few years, growers generally care less about the funding as they experience the tangible benefits of reduced weed pressure and erosion, nutrient cycling and soil structure. It sells itself.”

Farmers for Soil Health is also creating a satellite-based platform to record and rate conservation practices, rendering an ‘eco-score.’ This documentation will ensure transparency to growers and buyers in sustainable crop marketing. 

A mixture of cover crop seeds

Resources for Agents and Growers

Menker sees his new role as part resource guide and part tech help.

Austin Menker exits the cab of a tractor after riding with a NC farmer to plant cover crops.“NC State has a robust portfolio of field data and tools on tap. From decision tools like the cover crop nitrogen predictor to information on carbon markets and tillage fact sheets on a new conservation agriculture portal page, I want to arm growers with the information they need to succeed.” 

But he also sees a significant opportunity to serve as a feedback loop into the university.

“Farmers, agents and local organizations are going to shape this position based on their needs. I expect at least half of my work will be synthesizing feedback and inputs to drive research that will ultimately improve Extension support.”

Menker’s calendar is already filling with presentation requests. But one of his first tasks will be a need assessment survey to agents and growers. 

“We certainly want to boost sustainable practices, but it also has to make economic sense. I’m here to help agents and growers navigate the tradeoffs and nuances of sustainable practices.”

Menker hails from Ohio State University with a background in sustainable agriculture production and applied economics. He serves as a dedicated Extension liaison working closely with other NC State crop and soil sciences faculty like Rachel Vann, Chris Reberg-Horton, Alex Woodley but also more broadly with any faculty across campus who are working in research areas of climate-smart agriculture.

Rachel Vann is the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative’s Platform Director for Extension Outreach and Engagement.

‘We have long recognized that to most robustly serve the growers across the state with knowledge on cover crop management and other climate-smart agricultural practices; we needed dedicated Extension expertise in this area. We are thrilled to have Austin here to serve as this expertise and are excited about the model of Austin working interdisciplinary as an Extension Associate intersecting with wide-ranging research and Extension faculty. In the short time since Austin started the position, he has been contacted by Agents and growers with requests to deliver information and answer questions, which really underscores the value of the position.’

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