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"Creating a healthy, naturally balanced environment is good for us and for our productivity and profitability. And we think it's the right thing."

-Jim Crawford
Pennsylvania Vegetable Farmer

Soil Health
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For America’s farmers and ranchers, the soil beneath their feet is the foundation for their success. It is the source from which food and forage are grown to feed, clothe and energize the nation. And soil – as a living organism – exists alongside wildlife, air and water to bring life.   

wheat fieldWith shrinking supplies of clean water and energy, a growing population and the changing global climate, it is now more important than ever for farmers to enhance and preserve the fertility of their soil.  American Farmland Trust (AFT) is actively engaged in improving soil health to enhance the productivity, profitability and sustainability of the nation’s farm and ranch lands.

Cover Crops Help Save Farmland by the Inch

One of the primary strategies that farmers are using to improve soil health is planting a diversity of cover crops, which regenerate the biological activity in the soil. A cover crop is a crop planted primarily to manage soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife.  These crops, typically planted in between rows of cultivated plants or trees or on bare fields during fallow periods, protect the land’s surface from erosion and manage soil fertility and quality.

AFT is working with farmers in the Midwest to adopt cover crops into their on-farm practices.   Beneath much of the rich, dark soils of Midwestern farmland is a tile drainage system that regulates soil moisture by efficiently removing access water from the surface. Though tile drainage keeps the soil moisture at a level for optimal plant growth, it creates a leaky system where excess nitrogen fertilizer and other nutrients run off into surrounding waterways. Cover crops are one way farmers can help reduce the fertilizer runoff and help stop the leakage.

A proven farm management tool, cover crops have many other benefits.  For example, cover crops can:

  • Reduce fugitive nutrients entering lakes and waterways
  • Suppress weeds
  • Break up compacted soil (caused by heavy equipment)
  • Retain moisture, offering protection against drought
  • Sequester carbon dioxide, countering the effects of global warming

Fred Kirschenmann, a sustainable farming champion and member of an AFT-led advisory committee for Growing Food Communities, offered this example of how cover crops can weather-proof a farm in an interview with Yes Magazine. "Before one farmer started managing for soil health, his soil had the capacity to absorb only a half inch of rainfall per hour before it would start running off.  After he had restored his soil with these new ways of soil management, it was capable of storing eight inches of rain per hour."

Educating and Empowering Farmers

Father and son farmersFarmers throughout the U.S. are interested in improving soil health, but the successful management of cover crops requires a basic level of understanding that isn’t always accessible.  As AFT Midwest Director Mike Baise explains, “Farmers often ask me, ‘How do I get started on cover crops?’ They prefer smaller, more direct learning opportunities, as opposed to larger group settings. I do everything I can to facilitate this type of learning and to connect farmers with the information and resources they need.”

Illinois lags behind other Midwest states in its adoption of cover crops within corn and soybean cropping systems. AFT works closely with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and soil and water conservation districts throughout the state, empowering them to hold educational events on cover crop’s role in soil health.

As part of this effort, AFT is sponsoring field days where farmers can share information and ideas around cover crops. The field days will take place from late summer to early fall in Champaign County, McLean County, Montgomery County and Morgan County, Illinois. Field days in additional counties may be added, so check out AFT’s Illinois webpage for additional information.

In partnership with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, AFT is helping to promote a new cover crops website and a project demonstrating cover crops along state highways. “Next winter we want people to drive by and notice that the cover crop demonstration fields are green and alive while everything else is brown,” Baise explains. “I think it will be a powerful educational tool and stimulus for further adoption of cover crops.”

Advancing Adoption of Best Management Practices

Best Management Practices (BMPs) support conservation goals like protecting against soil loss and keeping nutrients from leaving the farm. When done right, BMPs can improve the environment while also improving the farmer’s bottom line.

But for a farmer, implementing BMPs can feel like making a bet against their income. It means asking farmers to believe that lesser amounts of fertilizer, sometimes substantially less, will deliver the same yields, or to implement reduced tillage, which decreases erosion but can delay soil warming and plant growth.

AFT's innovative solution, the BMP Challenge, overcomes this challenge by guaranteeing against any potential loss of income for farmers who want to experiment with reducing fertilizer use or utilizing reduced tillage practices on their farms so they can decide whether the practice will work for them.  In the coming years, AFT may test this same approach to help farmers experiment risk-free with cover crops.

Green tractor in Midwest farm fieldA recent report on the use of BMPs among California specialty crop growers finds that the cost of new irrigation and nutrient management is the major obstacle to farmers’ adoption of BMPs, followed by grower concern that they could suffer a reduction in crop yield or quality. The report includes a number of recommendations for encouraging more specialty crop growers to adopt irrigation and nutrient management BMPs and calls for a comprehensive strategy for expanding BMP adoption.

Conservation Compliance Key to Protecting Soil Health

Over the last 25 years, one of the least-publicized farmland conservation efforts has actually been one of the most effective.  A  recent report by former USDA Deputy Secretary and Co-Chair of AGree Jim Moseley explains how conservation compliance, which has historically required farmers to implement conservation measures in return for federally funded farm support, helped save millions of wetland acres while keeping billions of tons of soil on farms. As a result, millions of marginal, erosion-prone lands have remained healthy and productive.

“Few conservation programs can boast the success rate of conservation compliance,” said Moseley, who served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2005. “This program has helped farmers save 295 million tons of soil per year and kept an estimated 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of vulnerable wetlands from being drained. The results of this compact between farmers and taxpayers have been astounding.”

The report urges Congress to reattach conservation compliance to crop insurance premium assistance in the next farm bill reauthorization.

For more information about American Farmland Trust’s work on soil health, please contact either Mike Baise at (317) 508-0756 or mbaise@farmland.org or Ann Sorensen at (815) 753-9349 or asorensen@niu.edu.

American Farmland Trust