Chopper bringing special-delivery cover crops to area farms

Staff Writer
Published: 8/24/2019

HATFIELD ― The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a message for local residents: If you see helicopters flying low over cornfields in the coming weeks, don’t be alarmed.

The helicopters will be flying over 23 farms in the state, dropping a combination of winter rye, oats and forage radish seed to act as a cover crop that will protect soil health after crops are harvested. This marks the fifth year of the USDA program, which this year will benefit farms in Hatfield, South Hadley and Southampton.

“Our agency has been making even more of a push for farmers to adopt good soil health practices,” said Diane Baedeker Petit, a spokeswoman with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “It has definitely been catching on.”

Planting cover crops is a key component of protecting soil health. By spreading the seed via helicopter, the agency and local farmers are able to plant cover crops before corn is even harvested, allowing it to become established earlier in the season.

“One of the big principles of soil health is to keep a living root in the soil at all times,” Kate Parsons, an NRCS resource conservationist who is coordinating the aerial seeding effort in the state, said in a statement. “The cover crop will stay green throughout the fall and winter, will build organic matter and will protect and stabilize the soil from erosion.”

The process helps prevent soil runoff into rivers and streams, Petit said, and also helps soil retain water.

Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield is one of the local farms participating in the program.

“We’ve always been cover crop people,” said farm owner Darryl Williams. “The benefit is really healthy soil.”

Williams said that the advantage of the USDA program, which Luther Belden Farm has participated in for four years, is the ability to plant the cover crop before harvesting his corn. That way, the cover crop has a head start on the New England winter.

The program saves farmers money, time and energy. But Williams said the biggest benefit is to the earth.

“I always say: Farmers were the first environmentalists,” he said. “We care a lot about our soils and our soil health, and this is a good example of a practice that is benefiting all of us.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at