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Keeping it Green and Growing: Using Airplanes to Improve Soil Health in New Jersey

A special aircraft seeds a field with cover crops. The USDA's aerial seeding program will bring low-flying planes to Warren, Hunterdon and Somerset counties starting September 10th, 2018

During the week of September 10-14, a low-flying plane will blanket over 3,000 acres of northern and central New Jersey cropland in cover crops; an all-natural mixture of rye, radish, and clover seeds.  However, farmers won’t be harvesting this crop in the spring; its purpose is to build soil organic matter and prevent soil erosion. 

“Cover crops are being embraced by farmers all over the state.  They help farmers by improving the soil while also improving water quality.  It’s a win-win,” said North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development Council (NJRC&D) Agricultural Specialist Christian Bench, who coordinates the effort with local farmers and manages the aerial seeding program. 

The plane will be flying over Hunterdon, Warren and Morris Counties dropping over 150,000 lbs of seed through the air onto local crop fields enrolled in the program. The tiny seeds will grow under the dense corn and soy cover. When the grains and beans are harvested, the newly established cover crops will remain, protecting the soil from erosion throughout the winter.  In the spring, the lush cover crops will provide additional soil nitrogen, build organic matter and suppress weeds.

“The logistics of aerial seeding are far from simple,” said Bench. “Identification of fields to be seeded is done in advance of the actual seeding so that flight paths can be established and seeding of nearby farms can be coordinated.” Weather conditions and temporary flight restrictions may also influence seeding dates. Downstown Aero Crop Service of Vineland, NJ will perform the seeding using an air tractor, a yellow fixed wing aircraft designed for the purpose of seeding. No pesticides or fertilizers are applied during this operation.

The 2018 seed mix includes winter rye, annual ryegrass, crimson clover, medium red clover and tillage radish -- all non GMO seed. The clover species in the mix are chosen to promote nitrogen fixation, tillage radish can produce a tap root up to 8”-10” long relieving soil compaction, and the rye is hardy and provides rapid, dense coverage.  The multi-species mix increases soil microbial activity and water holding capacity while protecting the soil from erosion.

This is the fifth year of the aerial seeding program, a project that owes its success to a partnership between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the North Jersey RC&D.

“With the combined support of the farmers, the USDA-NRCS, NJDEP Water Quality Restoration grants, and the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, we are demonstrating the benefit of partnerships in the region to improve and protect soil and water resources,” said Laura Tessieri, North Jersey RC&D Associate Director.  

The North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development Council (RC&D) 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, the North Jersey RC&D Council develops and manages programs and projects that promote the conservation and improvement of the region’s resources. For more information, please visit

Pictured, is a plane loaded and ready to begin seeding operation


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