October 21, 2014
On Friday, October 17, more than 40 national organizations, companies, and foundations delivered a joint vision statement for soil health and cover crops to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) joined with the National Association of Conservation Districts and American Soybean Association to issue a press release and deliver the letter to USDA on behalf of all 41 signatories.
The vision statement highlights the increasing popularity of soil health practices such as cover cropping. For example, “the 2012 Ag Census reported 10.3 million acres of cover crops” nationwide. The signers argue, however, that the number of acres of cover crops across the country “can and should increase considerably, perhaps reaching 20 million acres or more by 2020.”
“Implementation of these [soil health] conservation practices is paying off for thousands of farmers and for our country, in the form of increased crop yields, better resilience to weather extremes, less soil erosion, improved nutrient management, greater carbon sequestration, and enhanced cropping system diversity,” the letter states. “Ultimately, support and innovation from decision makers in both the public and private sector is needed to ensure that this great opportunity to transform American farming reaches its full potential, benefiting as many farmers, communities, and families as possible.”
The letter recommends that USDA should seek to broadly support cover crops and soil health, including through a comprehensive strategic plan with clear, outcome-based goals for research, education, extension, data collection, financial and technical assistance, credit, risk management, and other relevant policies and programs.
Over the last several years, NRCS has worked with external partner organizations to increase the attention given to soil health. In 2012, NRCS launched a new healthy soils initiative, called “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil.”
To complement this new federal initiative, NSAC worked with USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to publish a series of five blog posts on sustainable soil management, research, and demonstration.
In February 2014, SARE organized a National Conference on Soil Health and Cover Crops, which drew more than 300 people from across the country. In conjunction with the conference, soil health forums took place at over 200 NRCS and Extension offices across the country. Approximately 6,000 farmers and agricultural professionals attended the forums to engage in local conversations on cover crops and soil health.
The Farm Foundation and others recently launched a Soil Health Renaissance project, including a strategic plan in the areas of soil health research, education, economics, and measurement.
Most recently, more than 50 percent of the awards made through NRCS’s Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program in 2014 went toward projects that focus on developing and deploying innovative methods for improving soil health.
Soil health has been a central organizing principle for sustainable and organic agriculture since the beginning. There was a time not all that long ago when NSAC advocated for a soil quality focus for federal farm conservation efforts and did not get much of a response or interest from NRCS. It is therefore particularly exciting to see the enhanced interest from so many portions of the agricultural community in this vital topic for the future of farming, food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and environmental quality.
Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment