Soil Health Values Explained
Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor
Mon Sep 29, 2014 02:22 PM CDT
(Page 1 of 2)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Advocates for soil health highlighted the benefits of both soil and water quality to members of a House Agriculture subcommittee on Thursday, but they also acknowledged solid economic numbers are needed to get more farmers to adopt such practices.

After a congressional hearing Thursday on soil health, staff from the Natural Resources Conservation District held a rainfall demonstration outside of USDA's main headquarters building in Washington. Chris Lawrence, an NRCS agronomist from Virginia, looks on as the simulator shows runoff from various types of tillage and grazing practices. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

The hearing came as Congress was trying to wrap up its week and send members home to campaign. That left the ranks thin in the subcommittee with only a handful of lawmakers attending the hearing. Still, that didn't dampen enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., stressed his belief in the value of soil health. Lucas noted that at one time farmers only considered their needs and mined the soil. Then "the focus began to shift that this was something not to be used and thrown away," he said. Now, thinking has progressed to using practices that build organic matter and soil on the farm.

"Any farmer will tell you that right along with their children and their grandchildren, they have no greater asset on their farm than their soil," Lucas said.

Lucas noted later, "The Dust Bowl showed us how we could come together and work cooperatively on a problem."

Jason Weller, chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the agency's focus on soil health has created "a renewed focus, a return to the past." Work in soil health requires managing the soil as a living ecosystem.

Several groups are working in the soil-health arena through various partnerships. Monsanto has teamed up with the National Corn Growers Association on a program while the Farm Foundation is working on a "soil renaissance" effort with the Noble Foundation. Weller noted a broad group of farmers, universities and foundations are working on soil health in one aspect or another.

Soil health is critical because more is expected of the land in the future. Over the last 30 years, as much as 43 million acres of land have been converted from agriculture to development. Weller said roughly 14 million of those acres would have been considered prime cropping land. Moreover, soil health will become more critical in the future as agricultural production will need to intensify because of the growing global population, Weller said.

Weller cited data showing roughly 67 million acres across the country are farming under continuous no-till or about 22% of the overall crop land. Continuous no-till sequesters carbon in the soil, leading to increased organic matter that improves the water-holding capacity of a field.

Within his agency, Weller said the soil health initiative has energized field staff. "The passion within NRCS that people have about this, you can really feel it," he told lawmakers.

Weller was asked why some farmers remain reluctant to adopt broader conservation practices. He said it's hard to ask a farmer to change what he or she is doing.

"If they can get a crop, making a living, doing OK, why introduce a risk?" Weller said.

The economics have to work. Farmers must be shown they can save money or add more to their bottom line. "It has got to work for their operation," Weller said.

Rep Bob Gibbs, a Republican who farms in Ohio, said no-till practices have helped reduce erosion on his farm.

"I have been doing no-till for 20 years, so you don't have to sell me."

But Gibbs also said farmers are increasingly facing heavy rainfall events that can overwhelm even good conservation practices. "The conservation practices we are putting in address normal weather activities. It's those extremes where we have problems," he said.

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