February 16, 2018
From the microorganisms down in it to the food that grows from it, farmers care deeply about the health of their soil. Cultivating and maintaining healthy soils on working lands has benefits far beyond crop production, however. The healthier the soil, the less a farmer has to use chemical inputs, which is both a cost saving for the farmer and good for the environment. Healthier soils also better retain moisture, which increases resilience to drought and means that nutrients stay in the ground and don’t leach into the water supply.
Congress is working now to develop our next farm bill, a massive package of legislation that will include policies that either help or hinder the promotion of conservation practices that build and maintain soil health. As the programs and policies of the farm bill are debated, groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are working to promote the benefits of conservation systems and highlight how the next farm bill can help more farmers increase their sustainability.
This week, NSAC partnered with the Soil Health Institute, General Mills, and the Land Stewardship Project (an NSAC member) to host a congressional briefing on the benefits of soil health and the critical role the farm bill plays in increasing our commitment to proven conservation practices. The briefing was hosted in conjunction with Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN), a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee who has been a long-time champion for conservation and soil health in the farm bill.
A healthy soil is a living ecosystem that is able to sustain plants, animals, and humans. As mentioned, healthy soils have benefits both on and off the farm – they help to ensure productive cropland, grazing lands, and forests, and also play a vital role in keeping our natural resources healthy by filtering potential pollutants, cycling nutrients, and providing physical stability and support for plant roots.
Congressman Walz opened the meeting by discussing the myriad benefits of soil health and the important roll that farm bill conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) play in ensuring that farmers have the information and resources they need to increase their farms’ sustainability. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Walz is actively working with NSAC and other farm and conservation groups to ensure that the next farm bill includes strong support for critical working lands conservation programs.
Following the Congressman’s remarks, Dr. Rob Myers and Dr. Wayne Honeycutt dug into the science of soil health. Dr. Myers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the University of Missouri, centered his discussion on the relationship between cover crops (a crop grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil) and improved soil health. Dr. Myers highlighted the short and long-term benefits of cover cropping, which include: healthier soils, reduced erosion and runoff, and significant yield improvements over time.
Dr. Honeycutt, President and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, leads the Institute’s programs to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soils. His presentation highlighted national soil health challenges and opportunities, and focused on growing climate pressures and the need to build and protect resilient soils and systems. In particular, healthy soils enhance the ability of the soils to retain water, thus building resilience in the face of drought and extreme weather. Dr. Honeycutt concluded by identifying the key components of the Soil Health Institute’s Action Plan: research, measurements, economies, communications/education, and policy.
The briefing included perspective from two farmers who are leading the way in managing and improving the health of working lands’ soil. These farmers each brought a unique voice to the conversation and shared personal stories about the importance of soil health to their family’s operations.
Jimmy Kinder, a fourth generation farmer and rancher from Cotton County Oklahoma, farms 8,000 acres. Kinder Farm raises several different crops and animals, including stocker cattle, wheat, canola, and grain sorghum. Kinder was an early adopter of no-till production practices in southwest Oklahoma and his decades of success have convinced even the skeptical of the benefits of on-farm conservation practices. According to Kinder, his family’s farm was devastated during the Dust Bowl; the effects on the soil were apparent even many decades later when he took over the farm. Thanks to years of dedication to on-farm conservation practices, however, Kinder has managed to rejuvenate the soil on his farm and convince many other producers to look into no-till conservation production.
Jon Jovaag is a farmer from Austin, Minnesota, who grows corn, small grains, alfalfa, and soybeans, and also raises pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. Half of the farm that Jovaag works with his family is certified organic, and the entire operation benefits from conservation farming techniques. Jovaag prioritizes soil stewardship and conservation, because he knows that these practices will help to make his farm profitable for generations to come. So far, Jovaag has tried his hand at cover cropping, limited till organic farming, and reducing his off-farm inputs. Jovaag has also been a leader in Land Stewardship Project’s Federal Policy Steering Committee, where he is an active advocate for USDA conservation programs.
Both Kinder and Jovaag highlighted the impacts that federal conservation programs like CSP, which both have used, have on a farmer’s ability adopt and expand key conservation activities.
The final two panelists concluded the briefing by addressing farm bill policies and programs that are critical for soil health, as well as the role food businesses have to play in encouraging on-farm conservation.
Alyssa Charney, Senior Policy Specialist at NSAC, walked the audience through the key farm bill programs that provide farmers with the tools they need to invest in and expand their soil health efforts. In particular, Charney emphasized just how critical it is that Congress not only protect, but enhance CSP in the next farm bill. CSP is unique among agricultural conservation programs because it provides comprehensive conservation assistance to address priority natural resource concerns; by taking a holistic and advanced approach to working lands conservation, CSP has done more to advance soil health than any other conservation program to date. Currently, over 72 million acres nationwide are enrolled in CSP.
Erika Baum, a government and public affairs representative for General Mills, concluded the panel by highlighting General Mills’ commitment to investing in their farmers’ long-term success and sustainability. Baum underscored that General Mills would be elevating its focus on soil health as a core component of good farming practices, and was committed strengthening their work with partners and allies in the sustainable agriculture and conservation communities.
NSAC thanks Congressman Walz and the other panelists for their leadership and efforts to advance soil health. We will continue to worth with our champions in Congress to advance working lands conservation, as well as our partners in the conservation and agriculture communities to advance these critical priorities in the next farm bill.