Beginning on September 1st, residents of Northern and Central New Jersey may see low-flying planes crisscrossing the skies. There’s nothing to be concerned about: these planes are dropping “cover crop” seed – a mixture of grasses and clover – on over 2,000 acres of agricultural fields. Crops planted by these planes won’t be harvested – instead, they will protect and enrich the soil throughout the winter before farmers plant their crops in the spring. On conventional corn and soybean farms, farmers harvest crops in the fall, after which fields are left bare for 5-7 months. Without plants with living roots to anchor the soil, topsoil and nutrients are washed away during intense rainfall events, reducing soil fertility and polluting nearby waterways.
North Jersey RC&D, which runs this aerial seeding program, first began the effort in 2013. “The 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. The program is made possible through the combined support of farmers, the USDA-NRCS, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the William Penn Foundation through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. Cover crops are an increasingly popular method for farmers to use to build soil health. Clover species increases soil nitrogen, and the grasses are hardy and provide rapid, dense coverage that prevents erosion. In spring, the cover crop residue sequesters soil carbon and builds organic matter.
"Aerial seeding is an efficient and effective way for New Jersey farmers to plant cover crops,” said Hannah Tremblay, Agricultural Specialist at North Jersey RC&D. “Planting seed via plane means that seed can be spread before crops are harvested, rather than later in the fall. These extra weeks of growth mean that cover crops have longer to establish and will have a greater impact in terms of soil health and erosion reduction than if farmers waited to plant cover crops until after they harvested their corn and soybeans.” Christian Bench, North Jersey RC&D Agricultural Specialist, coordinates the aerial seeding initiative. “Farmers sign up for the aerial seeding program months in advance of the actual seeding in order for flight plans to be efficiently planned and coordinated. In the end, it all comes down to finding an ideal weather window; it’s essential to plant seed on days with very little wind and shortly before or after it rains.” The importance of precise weather conditions means that while planes will fly sometime during the first two weeks of September, but the exact days will be determined by the forecast.
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.