From the Executive Director: Soil Health Can Fix Modern Agriculture

Theresa Keaveny

Editor’s Note: This column appeared July 7, 2017, in the Mankato Free Press under the headline, “My View: Farming can be sustainable and profitable.” 

Scott Haase works on his family farm in Faribault County, where most farmers grow corn and soybeans using methods they’ve been encouraged to use for decades.

It’s become conventional wisdom: government policies, county extension agents and land-grant universities combine with the agriculture sales industry to create a yield-focused farm paradigm, and farmers, always focused on continued growth and survival in an uncertain world, act in ways that benefit their farm business. Who could blame them?

But the paradigm is shifting. Years of evidence from innovative producers is combining with academic research to prove that soil health, the seemingly obvious fact that healthy soil results in healthy crops, has benefits that can completely transform agriculture, helping both the farmer and the public.

Haase and his family have seen this evidence first-hand. They’ve adopted sustainable, soil health-building practices like cover cropping, reduced tillage, and livestock integration. They have installed perennial berms containing hazelnuts, trees and other plantings. The Haase farm is working with nature, not against it, to achieve profits and yields while increasing animal habitat and, importantly, clean water.

“We try to maximize our impact through regenerative solutions across the landscape,” Haase said. “There are solutions that restore natural resources while at the same time enhance farms and communities.

“Modern agriculture has simplified the landscape. Unsimplifying it and reestablishing natural patterns is going to take thoughtful, deliberate action by farmers.”

It’s impossible to understate the critical nature of a healthy watershed. Buffer laws, industrial agriculture, even “calcareous fens” – delicate prairie wetlands protected by law because they harbor rare and endangered plants  – have repeatedly thrust farm vs. environmental interests into the spotlight. Farmers feel constricted by regulations on their farm businesses which, they say, rely on the ability to irrigate, spray and achieve maximum production. They feel attacked by the media and the public, and feel like they’re “the enemy.”

The Haases, however, are proof that farm success and environmental protection need not be mutually exclusive, building healthy soil by planting cover crops, keeping cover on the land and adding livestock. The result can be a cash-positive experience – relying less on chemical inputs such as fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide. This creates a seismic shift in a farmer’s balance sheet.

Soil health principles, in fact, are the solution to nearly every problem that modern commodity agriculture is creating and/or facing. Consider:

Healthy soil can handle extreme weather. Soil with high organic matter absorbs and holds vast quantities of water,  buffering lengthy droughts or heavy rain events. Evidence shows sudden rain events of over 10 inches become manageable. This is huge for farmers, but imagine how healthy, organic-rich soil in the surrounding watershed could help flood-prone regions.

Healthy soil improves the farm’s bottom line. Farmers who implement soil health practices see competitive yields, lower input costs and a higher return per acre; healthy soil is the “buffer strip.”  Fertilizers such as  phosphorus  remain in the field, thanks to enhanced soil biology.

Healthy soil is hugely beneficial to natural life cycles. Grassland bird species and pollinators benefit from crop diversity and continuous cover. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a soil health-building farmer brag about how many dung beetles and pheasants they’re seeing.

Healthy soil produces healthy food. A key principle of soil health is  adding livestock to the crop fields for part of the year or as part of a diverse crop rotation. It’s been demonstrated that beef, much-maligned as having a negative environmental impact, can create a net positive when managed as part of a biological soil system rather than in concentrated feeding operations. Farmers who don’t want to take on the year-round care of  livestock have new tools like the Department of Agriculture’s Cropland Grazing Exchange to help unite crop and livestock farmers to build soil health and each other’s bottom line.

Healthy soil keeps roads safer in winter. Fields with cover capture snow and keep it from blowing across the highways and byways, making travel less treacherous.

Farmers across the Upper Midwest, like Haase, are seeing these results. The Sustainable Farming  Association’s work on soil health education helps producers every day, who are excited to see farming and nature working together. Jubilant at options for herbicide resistant weed management, reduced field drown-out areas, and natural buffers. Encouraged that their farm business is an attractive option for their children.

Peace of mind because they are making money.

The solution is soil health. Minnesota’s innovative, hardworking farmers can lead this effort for our farm families, our lakes and rivers, our wildlife, our communities, and our children.

“We know clean water is good; we know the difference between good and bad smells,” Haase said. “We can recognize a beautiful landscape. We don’t need to know exactly what works to see we’re heading in the right direction.”