With federal support for cover crops unable to meet demand, Minnesota farmers have a new way to help pay for planting otherwise bare fields to prevent soil from washing away.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a private conservation grant maker, has launched a public-private initiative to help get cover crops on 500,000 acres this fall in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and Minnesota. The Midwest Cover Crop Initiative is funded by an initial $2.6 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) has pledged $20 million to the effort.

Cover crops such as rye, peas or alfalfa have multiple benefits, including keeping sediment and chemicals out of rivers, storing carbon and retaining productive soil. But only about 2 to 5% of Minnesota's croplands use cover crops or reduced tilling.

"We're seeing more emphasis on cover crops than we ever have before," said Todd Hogrefe, director of the foundation's central region. "What's new and exciting is [the ability to] stack traditional payments through the Farm Bill with a new private payment opportunity."

The Minnesota Soil Health Coalition, a farmer-led nonprofit, received $249,800, which Executive Director Mark Gutierrez said could reach roughly 150 farmers this year, based on his back-of-the-envelope estimates.

Gutierrez said the extra-cost share is important because farmers don't necessarily earn a direct return on cover crops. The practice is about soil health, not profit.

"Cover crops are about keeping a living root in the soil," Gutierrez said.

Cover crops add organic matter to the land and support important microbes in the soil. The planted fields also create vital forage and cover for a host of wildlife, said the NFW Foundation's Hogrefe.

Hogrefe said ADM approached the foundation about a year ago with the idea to subsidize cover crops in the Midwest.

"There just aren't the federal resources to meet the need," Hogrefe said.

In fact, less than half of the farmers who apply to the federal government's two popular cost-sharing programs for conservation practices such as cover cropping actually get the help, according to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The shortage has hit Minnesota particularly hard with farmers turned away at a particularly high rate, said institute researcher Michael Happ.

Paul Scheetz,ADM's director of Climate Smart Ag Origination, said there aren't any ADM-specific seeds being sold to farmers. He described the effort as flowing naturally from ADM's interest in regenerative agriculture, which emphasizes conservation practices to build soil health.

Lincoln County farmer Ben Dwire, board chair at the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition, said he hopes the money will reach farmers that existing programs aren't.

Dwire said he's had great success with cover cropping and no-till practices on his 550 acres, where he grows food-grade oats, corn and soybeans. He typically plants cereal rye and red clover for winter cover, and grazes as many cattle on it as he can. It has saved him money by reducing his fertilizer use.

For some farmers it can seem counterintuitive to add new plants into their crop fields, because they've focused on getting weeds out, Dwire said.

"We're used to nothing but corn or nothing but beans should ever grow on this field," he said.