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Soil Health Makes Strides in 2017

Collaboration Between the Agriculture Industry and Conservation Sparks Transformative Change on the Ground

December 5 marks World Soil Day—a day that we celebrate one of the planet’s most vital, yet often overlooked, environmental resources. Not only does healthy soil grow 95 percent of the world’s food, but it filters pollutants from our drinking water, sequesters carbon, and supports a quarter of the world’s biological diversity.

This World Soil Day we’re not only celebrating the wondrous mixture of air, water, minerals and organic matter that is soil, but we’re marking the one-year anniversary of The Nature Conservancy’s reThink Soil Roadmap. Designed to catalyze collaborative action across the science, business and policy sectors, the 10-point Roadmap is helping to achieve soil health on the majority of the United States' soy, wheat and corn farms with benefits to crop productivity, farmers’ livelihoods and natural resources.

This year has included a groundswell of support, collaboration and opportunity driving advancement in soil health. Using the Roadmap as a guide, the Conservancy is working with food and agriculture businesses, government agencies, and other NGOs to move us closer to our goal: More than 50 percent of U.S. corn, soy and wheat croplands will be managed for optimal soil health. It’s a tall order, but we’re already making progress.

Brent Tadman is the manager of the Conservation Farms and Ranches on Staten Island in California’s Central Valley, which uses wildlife-friendly farming techniques. Photo © 2013 Jennifer Davidson/TandemStock for The Nature Conservancy
Brent Tadman is the manager of the Conservation Farms and Ranches on Staten Island in California’s Central Valley, which uses wildlife-friendly farming techniques. Photo © 2013 Jennifer Davidson/TandemStock for The Nature Conservancy

Here are the top five soil health milestones from 2017:

  1. Measurement standards for soil health. The Soil Health Institute (SHI) endorsed 19 measurements—ranging from organic carbon to pH—that all farmers can use to chart their progress towards achieving healthy soils. Using these measures will help farmers track improvements in their soil health, as well as create a common set of indicators that will help all of those involved in soil health (farmers, scientists, etc.) measure the same thing across fields and over time, allowing for apples-to-apples comparisons.
  2. Non-Operating Landowner Program. The Nature Conservancy and Purdue University launched a multi-year research and trial program in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa to understand the barriers to soil health on rented cropland and the best way to provide landowners and their farmers with resources to strengthen land stewardship. Agricultural practices such as cover crops, reduced tillage and nutrient management can, in the long run, potentially help non-operating landowners increase their land value while operators can increase profits through greater productivity and reduced input costs. These practices also achieve multiple conservation goals: increased soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage.
  3. The 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is the largest source of mandatory federal spending for natural resources. Reauthorized every five to seven years, the Farm Bill provides farmers, ranchers and forest landowners with the tools necessary to protect and conserve their land and their way of life. The Nature Conservancy supports the creation of incentives in the next Farm Bill for producers to adopt soil health practices that mutually benefit their profit margins, crop production and the lands and waters on which such productivity depends. Specifically, we are calling for greater investment in soil health in the 2018 Farm Bill to help farmers adopt soil health practices on an additional 5 million acres of land a year.
  4. Soil health research. The Soil Health Partnership (SHP), an initiative of the National Corn Growers Association, added 66 demonstration farms to its 12-state network, bringing the number of farms to 111 across the Midwest. This effort is the largest farmer-led soil health research project of its kind. SHP is working with the farmers to identify, test and measure results from practices like cover crops, conservation tillage and nutrient management. Through annual field days and peer-to-peer communication, SHP and the demonstration farmers are sharing results with other farmers and showing how sustainability through soil health practices can lead to increased farmer profitability and multiple environmental benefits.
  5. Market signals in corporate sustainability programs. The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative—a coalition of businesses and NGOs—is addressing nutrient loss in the Upper Mississippi River Basin head on. The Collaborative is focused on key watersheds in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska to advance farmer-led solutions that protect air, water, and improve soil health. Earlier this year, Conservancy field staff in Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois—the three MRCC pilot states—evaluated the focal watersheds: Middle Cedar River Watershed, IA, Middle Platte River Watershed, NE, and the Upper Sangamon River Watershed, IL. These analyses will help determine opportunities to scale up nutrient reduction work and develop meaningful strategies to achieve our overall 20 percent nutrient reduction goal by 2025.

The key to feeding a growing population and improving the environment is literally right under our feet. The ReThink Soil initiative is a collaborative effort to improve soil health, with benefits for farmers, businesses, and the environment.

We’ve made significant strides in 2017. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. To reach our goal, we must keep building upon the momentum of collaboration between the business of agriculture and the conservation of our land and waters. By recognizing the immense environmental, economic and societal benefits of healthy soil, we can achieve a future that is sustainable for generations to come.

Larry Clemens is the director of the North America Agriculture program at The Nature Conservancy.