Soil Health Practices Not a One-Size Fits All

Joe Smentek

Director of Public Affairs Joe Smentek

Soil health is a very complicated subject. There are a number of factors from moisture, organic matter and nutrient retention all the way to simple erosion control that go into the health of soil. In addition, every soil type is going to have a different benchmark of what “healthy” actually means.

As every farmer knows, and it appears most agency folks have forgotten, every field is different. Every field on a farm is going to have its own soil-health challenges. Every area of a farm is going to act differently to a soil-health practice. But soil-health has more benefits than just environmental.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on the economics of soil health in Washington, D.C. In attendance were a number of economists, soil scientists and agency employees.

The lectures focused on the fact that most soil health initiatives will not only have an economic impact on the individual farm, but will also have environmental benefits to the public.

A number of lectures focused on the severe data and research gap in terms of what the hard figures of those benefits are in real dollars.

Cover crops were also a hot topic during the conference. Many in the group requested research on the economic benefits of cover crops. They were stuck looking at the same old cover crops and trying to make the case from that point rather than looking at different crops that may prove profitable on their own.

Several soil scientists from around the country were in attendance. We discussed some benefits to soil health attributable to buffers. They all agreed, however, there were other practices that may have far better environmental outcomes and higher economic value to a farmer than a buffer. These conversations have a very direct impact to Minnesota with our recently passed buffer law deadlines drawing nearer every day.

A devotion to a single practice such as the one-size-fits-all approach, like with cover crops, may not always prove to be the best thing for a number of reasons.

By exploring their individual farms and consulting with experts at the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), or local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, farmers can take a step in the right direction on their farms that will have a positive economic impact.

By having experts address soil health on a field-by-field basis, a landowner can take the steps necessary to improve the soil based on their soil type and topography of their fields. These practices will help improve profits through lowering inputs and raising yields. They will also have positive environmental impacts.

The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (MSR&PC) recently approved a project to work with Houston Engineering to create a document highlighting conservation practices that will provide the state with benefits similar to a buffer.

This document will highlight some of the practices that should meet the definition in the buffer bill as an alternative that may make more sense on your fields.

These issues go beyond pheasants and pollinators. The health of the soil is part of the economic power of your fields.

For more information on soil health check out: 

http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health/

https://www.farmfoundation.org/webcontent/The-Soil-Renaissance-Knowledge-to-Sustain-Earths-Most-Valuable-Asset-1873.aspx

Joe Smentek is an environmental attorney and Director of Public Affairs for Minnesota Soybean. Reach Joe at 507-388-1635 or joe@mnsoybean.com.