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Aerial Seeding Cover Crops- Building Healthy and Resilient Soils

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

During the first weeks of September, low flying planes will crisscross northern and central New Jersey seeding grass and clover seed on 3,000 acres of corn and soybean fields of local farmers. The seeds are being grown as a cover crop - not to be harvested -- but for the protection and enrichment of the soil throughout the winter and early spring.

In a classic northeastern corn/soybean farm, crops are harvested in the late fall and fields can be left bare for 5-7 months. Without living roots to anchor the soil, the topsoil and nutrients are washed away during intense rainfall events, reducing a soil's fertility and polluting local waterways.

This is the seventh year of North Jersey RC&D managing the successful aerial seeding program. “With the combined support of farmers, the USDA-NRCS, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the William Penn Foundation through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, this aerial seeding initiative is a successful public-private partnership that benefits the region by building healthy and resilient soils while protecting water quality,” stated Laura Tessieri, North Jersey RC&D Executive Director. Many farmers are turning to cover crops to build and preserve their soil health. Cover crops can be established and grown in the fall months and remain during the winter. The clover species increases soil nitrogen, and the rye is hardy and provides rapid, dense coverage that prevents erosion. In spring, the cover crop residue sequesters soil carbon and builds organic matter.

"Aerial seeding is one of the best available options for establishing a multi-species cover crop in this region”, said Bridgett Hilshey, Agricultural Specialist at North Jersey RC&D. “By spreading the seed via a plane, local farmers are able to plant cover crops before corn and beans are harvested – allowing cover crops to grow longer and have more environmental benefits. If you wait to plant cover crops until after harvest, some species don't have enough time to grow before winter." Christian Bench, North Jersey RC&D Agricultural Specialist and coordinator of the aerial seeding initiative, emphasized the logistics and timing considerations that go into the program. “Farmers enroll in the program and suitable fields are identified long in advance of the actual seeding so that flight paths can be established and seeding of nearby farms can be coordinated. Crops are monitored to ensure best seed to soil contact. Weather conditions influence seeding dates.”

Wings Aerial Applicators will perform the seeding using an air tractor: a fixed-wing aircraft designed for the purpose of seeding. No pesticides or fertilizers are applied during this operation and seeds are 100% non-GMO. The North Jersey RC&D (Resource Conservation & Development) is a regional nonprofit organization serving Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Union, and Warren Counties in New Jersey. Through partnerships with municipal, state and federal agencies, as well as many private entities, North Jersey RC&D develops and manages programs and projects that promote conservation of the region’s resources. For more information, please visit

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