Benefits of promoting soil health in agriculture U.S. House hearing 2014

Consequences of degraded soils

Consequences of degraded soils

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ At last, 10 years after I first published “Peak soil: Why biofuels destroy ecosystems and civilizations“, Congress had a hearing that educated house members on why preserving topsoil is so essential for food production for future generations. But no rules came out of this session to encourage or enforce farmers and ranchers to practice proven techniques that would preserve soil for future generations.

Preservation of topsoil is needed according to James Harbach, a farmer in Pennsylvania, because “We need to have a premium structure that promotes soil building techniques, and, conversely, provides a disincentive for soil degrading practices. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for supporting production agriculture that exports more topsoil nutrients and soil carbon than actual crop products.  The benefits of healthy soil need to be acknowledged in the regulatory process. We need regulatory agencies to recognize that well managed farms with healthy soils are the key to reducing agricultural problems.  Our government programs need to motivate farmers to adopt soil health principals. Many do the opposite, they enable poor stewardship.”

A few quotes from this U.S. House hearing:

Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania, Chairman: We owe it to future generations to do what we can today, and understand and recognize the importance of healthy soil.

Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture:  In order to feed an additional two billion people over the next 40 years we are going to have to grow as much food in the next 40 years as we have, as a world civilization, over the last 500 years.

If you think back to before Magellan everyone knew the Earth was round, before he circumnavigated the globe, and all lifetimes and all the food that was grown over that time period, we are going to have to grow in half a lifetime the same amount of food to feed that surging world population, and we are having to do that on a smaller land base.

Just here in the United States, in the last 30 years, upwards of 43 million acres of land have been converted from agricultural lands to non-agricultural lands, and of those 43 million acres, a land area the size of the State of Washington, 14 million acres of that were prime soils, the most food productive soils on Earth, the size of West Virginia, paved over and converted to other uses.

Shanon Phillips, Director, Water Quality Division, Oklahoma Conservation Commission:  The importance of protecting our national soil resources, which were built over geologic time and heavily impacted through settlement and development of our continent, is relatively obvious as it relates to the promotion of a strong agricultural industry, which, in turn, is critical for a healthy national economy. Scientists estimate that as much as 60% of carbon has been lost from agricultural soils since the 1800s. This loss in organic matter affects a soil’s capacity to absorb and hold nutrients and water, which are critical for production of crops and livestock forage. Protection of our soil resources is also mandatory for protection of the nation’s water resources.

Erosion of soil particles, washing of compounds from the soil, and changes in soil structure which affect water infiltration are some of the most significant sources of water quality problems in the U.S. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 777,759 or 67% of impaired miles of U.S. streams and rivers and 9,794,360 or 40% of impairments to lakes, reservoirs and ponds are caused by pollutants related to soil erosion or leaching of pollutants from soils such as excess nutrients, sedimentation, turbidity (suspended particles), pathogens, and pesticides.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer]

House 113-23. September 18, 2014. The benefits of promoting soil health in agriculture and rural America. U.S. House of Representatives. 72 pages.

GLENN THOMPSON, PENNSYLVANIA , CHAIRMAN.  I want to welcome everyone to this hearing of the Conservation, Energy, and Forestry Subcommittee on the topic of healthy soils, which is critically important to American agriculture and strong farming communities. Congress has long recognized the importance of promoting soil health across the country, starting with the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935 as a permanent part of USDA. The need for this agency came in response to a persistent problem of soil erosion across the country, particularly in the Dust Bowl region. Now, the Soil Conservation Service, which eventually became the Natural Resources Conservation Service, plays an important role in preserving soil health across the country by providing producers with voluntary assistance in monitoring and assessing soil conditions on their land.

As our predecessors did for us in the past, we owe it to future generations to do what we can today, and understand and recognize the importance of healthy soil. The Earth’s population is projected to grow to roughly nine billion people by the year 2050. Given the growing demands on farmland everywhere, we must invest in the necessary resources, and best practices, to be certain that producers have the capacity to meet this growing need.

It is heartening to see how farmers, ranchers, and foresters across the country have made promoting the health and sustainability of soil a fundamental priority. For example, I see this all the time across the 5th District of Pennsylvania, where farmers are engaging in innovative practices, including no-till practices, cover cropping, and adhering to other best practices in order to preserve the nutrients in the soil. Additionally, it is important for us to remember that soil health is closely linked with water quality. In addition to the great work being done at the state and county levels, I am proud that so many of the farmers and foresters in Pennsylvania have taken voluntary steps to promote soil health in order to do their part to assist in the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay.

Whether it is protecting our drinkable water supply, keeping nutrients for the next crop year, or maintaining a supply of forage for livestock, there is no shortage of reasons why we must continue to innovate when it comes to promoting soil health.
JASON WELLER, CHIEF, NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, WASHINGTON, D.C.  Our renewed focus is a return to the past in some respects. Mr. Lucas referred to our almost 80 year history as an organization, coming back to our roots, literally, on soil. The palpable excitement and energy it is creating not only within NRCS, but also with our brothers and sisters in the Soil and Water Conservation districts across the United States, and with farmers and ranchers themselves. This approach to managing our soils as a living ecosystem, as well as the physical and chemical properties of the soil, is something that we are really excited about.

This is not about NRCS. Overall we play a small role in this movement. This is a broad coalition, from farmers and ranchers to land-grant universities, extension services, ag retailers, foundations, private individuals, nonprofit groups, you name it. There is a huge constellation of groups who are working on this topic of soil health. They are bringing tremendous innovation, new ideas, excitement, resources.

Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. So what we are doing when we focus on soil health is we are trying to protect that ecosystem, the soil ecosystem, to support the life within the ecosystem, as well as the other properties of the soils, ultimately to benefit life above the soil, the plants that grow the food and fiber we depend upon. And soil is really important because it provides some key functions that we rely on.

For example, healthy soil regulates the flow of water. When it rains or snows, or when the irrigation water is applied, what happens to that water? Does it leave the fields in runoff? Does it infiltrate in with the soil structure? As it gets into the soil structure, do the soils help to buffer and filter that water?

It provides an important crucial component for helping to clean the waters. Soils also then helps cycle the nutrients that are applied to farm fields through fertilizers, manures, and other sources, as well as the nutrients that are available from the environment itself, decomposition of the plant matter, and actually deposition from the atmosphere itself.

A really critical component of soil is it sustains life. At the end of the day, all life on Earth depends upon soil, and the function soils provides to grow the food, the fuel, the fiber we really need. It helps the plants transform the energy from the sun itself. It depends upon the soil medium for that conversion of the sun’s energy into energy that we then can use as life.

Speaking about life, for many years, our organization, many in our culture, have been focused on the physical and chemical properties of soil. Some have never lost sight. Many farmers and ranchers know that the soil is alive. But we are increasingly becoming aware of what is actually happening in that ecosystem below the surface of the Earth, what is happening in the soils. And what we are learning is that the life in the soils is among the most diverse on Earth.  There are millions of species of soil microorganisms, and billions of organisms in the soil itself that are all interrelated in an ecosystem, a web. They depend on each other, feed each other, transfer nutrients and energy between themselves. In just 1 teaspoon of soil, there are more microorganisms than there are people on Earth.

The bacteria that live in the rhizosphere, around the root structure, help feed nutrients into the plants, and in return the plants feed them carbohydrates, literally sugar, to those bacteria, which you could put 40 million on the head of a pin. An incredible array of life. That life includes bacteria, fungi, algae, arthropods and other insects, protozoa, larger vertebrate animals, and they all are there working together to bring energy, and life, and food throughout this whole structure. And, at the end, having a robust life force within the soil itself helps support the production of cropland whether it is for food, whether it is just for vegetation for wildlife.

The role of those life forms are really critical. They help shred the the biomass that resides in the soils. They help decompose that biomass to turn it into humus, a really rich organic structure of the soils themselves. They create micro-pores and macro-pores for water and air to infiltrate into the soil structure. They create room for the microbes and organisms to live. They help cycle nutrients out of the atmosphere, in the soil itself, and fertilizers that are applied to the soils. They help make the soil more efficient in the processing of those nutrients. And, ultimately, they also help clean the water, as the water moves through the soil structure. So the organisms are crucial overall not just to help the soils, but the health and quality of our environment.

In order to feed an additional two billion people over the next 40 years we are going to have to grow as much food in the next 40 years as we have, as a world civilization, over the last 500 years.

If you think back to before Magellan everyone knew the Earth was round, before he circumnavigated the globe, and all lifetimes and all the food that was grown over that time period, we are going to have to grow in half a lifetime the same amount of food to feed that surging world population, and we are having to do that on a smaller land base.

Just here in the United States, in the last 30 years, upwards of 43 million acres of land have been converted from agricultural lands to non-agricultural lands, and of those 43 million acres, a land area the size of the State of Washington, 14 million acres of that were prime soils, the most food productive soils on Earth, the size of West Virginia, paved over and converted to other uses.

So we have a massive challenge to grow food, we have less land to do it on, how are we going to do it?

This is a call to action to help support farmers and ranchers to begin investments today in improving and protecting the vibrancy and the health of their soils so they can be sustainable and grow that food and fiber, not just maintain yield, but boost yield, for decades to come.

Here are some of the benefits of healthy soil:

  1. Healthy soil helps improve water infiltration.
  2. When it rains, water doesn’t run off the field, it gets into the soil.
  3. It improves the water holding capacity of the soil.
  4. By increasing the organic matter and the porosity of the soil, you get more water in the root zone, where the crops can get at that water.
  5. Healthy soil helps improve water quality, protects our streams, rivers, and aquifers.
  6. It increases the nutrient availability of fertilizers, manure, and decomposing biomass.
  7. It helps cycle nutrients, makes them available again to grow food.
  8. It helps save energy. Producers can be more efficient with their use of their farm equipment and irrigation pumps.
  9. It helps save wear and tear on their equipment, which  at the end of the day, saves them money
  10. It helps improve the health of the plants, the crops themselves.
  11. It makes crops more drought resistant
  12. It makes crops more tolerant of high water events.
  13. It makes crops more resistant to pests and disease.

We view soil as a living factory, and when that factory is optimized, when you have all those critters working together, helping to feed the crops, you can then optimize the yield coming off those crops, off the farm fields. As a producer put it, anything can have quality, but only living things can have health. And that is what we are focused on, the health, and how do you nurture the health of the microorganisms, the ecosystem below the surface of the soil. We have four basic principles when we talk about soil health from a macro perspective for when we work with a farmer or rancher.

  1. Minimize disturbance of soil: the physical, the biological and the chemical
  2. Maximize the diversity of the plants in the soil. As we have learned from ecologists, ecosystems that are diverse in their populations are more resilient to stress, to drought, to pests, to disease. The more diverse the crops, the more diverse the microorganisms in the soil.
  3. Keep your soils covered for as much as possible to protect them from the erosive effects of wind and water.
  4. Have living roots in the soil for as long as possible. Instead of a bare field, keep the living roots in the soil to capture the energy of solar radiation to feed the organisms in the soil for as long as possible

NO-TILL.  One of the key principles is no-till, which leaves last years crop residues on the soil and at planting time seeds are drilled into the soil.   This addresses two of these key principles above, in terms of minimizing disturbance of the soil, but also maintaining a residue on the soil. So it is actually an interesting that we estimate across the U.S. there are about 67 million acres of cropland that are in continuous no-till. That is nearly a quarter of the crops.

In terms of avoiding lost carbon to the atmosphere, and keeping the carbon in the soils where it helps protect the ability of the soils to grow crops, about 8.8 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions are avoided by keeping the carbon in the soil.  That is equivalent to burning 990 million gallons of gas, or powering 1.9 million passenger vehicles per year, that are now being kept in the soils to help protect crops, and maintain the organic content in the soils.

So we view no-till practices as one of the greatest approaches to improving the health of the soils.  No till has a number of benefits.

  1. It protects those soils from the erosive power of wind, and from water.
  2. It helps shade out weeds
  3. It keeps the soil cool. When soil is bare in summer heat, you can actually cook and kill the microbes in the soil. Bare soils also get dried out, which stresses the plants.
  4. No-till mulch can serve as the biomass that fungi, mites, and other critters decompose into organic matter. So that also serves as a feedstock to help boost the organic matter in your soils, which boosts the water holding capacity of your soils.
  5. More organic matter means more water. You create a reservoir in your fields to hold water when it rains or snows, or when you irrigate. So a rough rule of thumb, for every one percent increase in organic matter, you increase the water holding capacity of an acre by 25,000 gallons of water. So soil health is a great way to help capture—when you irrigate, or when it rains, it helps create more drought resiliency for your crop fields.

Without no-till, there is nothing to stop tons of good topsoil from washing off the field, along with the water and fertilizer that would have penetrated the field which could have been stored underground for a long time.  That’ll cost the farmer money and energy to replace that water and nutrition later on.

Another key practice that we use is cover crops. [In his presentation he has a slide of a rye crop growing between corn flattened down before it was harvested, acting as a mulch, as well as the root system below providing food for microorganisms, keep soil from washing away, and so on.]

What does this mean for actual production of food? If you remember, back in 2012 we had one of the worst droughts in half a century, that impacted almost every state. And so some partners at the Sustainable Ag Research and Education Program at USDA, as well as the Conservation Technology Information Center, did a survey from producers in 759 producers in 7 Central Midwest states, and asked them if they used cover crops, and if so, what happened to your yield? We learned cover crops improved yield by 11% than folks who didn’t use them as part of the rotation.  And for soybeans, it was even higher –an over 14 percent increase in yield.

In addition to survey information from producers, NRCS has learned of positive soil health results directly from individual producers. For example, Steve Groff farms 225 acres in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he grows corn, soybeans and small grains, as well as pumpkins. Through more than 30 years of using no- till and multi-species cover crops, Mr. Groff reports that he has increased his soil organic matter from two percent to almost five percent, and has obtained yields that exceed local averages by ten percent.

Gabe Brown, who farms about 2,000 acres near Bismarck, North Dakota, keeps soil covered with dense, diverse plants and cover crops, while also integrating livestock into his soil health management system. Mr. Brown reports that he has more than doubled his soil’s organic matter content, and these healthy soils have resulted in higher than county-average yields.

Ray Styer, who grows corn silage and multi-species cover crops on 80 acres in Rockingham County, North Carolina, reports that he has more than tripled his soil organic matter and obtained yields that are 4 tons per acre above the county average.

In Carroll, Ohio, Dave Brandt farms a corn-soybean-wheat rotation on 1,500 acres. For more than 35 years, he has used a soil health management system with no-till, diverse cover crop mixes, and crop rotations; and has increased his soil’s organic matter from 2% to over 5%. Even during the drought of 2012, Mr. Brandt reported that he averaged 170 bushels of corn per acre, which was nearly twice the yield of his conventional farming neighbors.

At the end of the day, in my view, cover crops are one of the best risk management tools we can offer a farmer or rancher from our quiver of conservation practices, but this is a great risk management tool. It helps not only maintain yield, but also protects farmers in periods of stress.

Another core practice is nutrient management– how you manage the nutrients of your soils. There are the nutrients you apply through fertilizer, manure, poultry litter and the available nutrients that are left over from last year’s application of fertilizers. It is the biomass, the residue that is left over from the crops. It is the actual deposition of nitrogen from the atmosphere, and how the microbes incorporate those nutrients. So a nutrient management plan, using the 4R’s of the right source, at the right time, the right rate, the right amount, is part and parcel of an effective soil health management system.  This is something that NRCS is working very closely with foundations, the research community, certified crop advisors, institutes, you name it. There is a broad array of folks who are working with producers to incorporate effective nutrient management into the soil health systems.

Improving soil health on range and pasture.  We talked about how tillage is a disturbance to the soil. Overgrazing also is a disturbance of the soil, a biological disturbance. When you overgraze, you are stressing the plants. You actually have smaller root mass below the soils. You get more opportunity, then, to heat the soils, to cook those microbes, create drought stress in the plants and provide more opportunity for weed penetration, invasive penetration.

The best practice is rotational grazing so livestock don’t overgraze.  The plants that aren’t grazed have roots that go down several feet or more, which create pores for water to infiltrate in, and for the nutrients to have better access deeper into the soil profile and more habitat for microbes. So at the end of the day, the soils on the right are going to be more drought resistant, more resistant to invasive species and weeds. And so, overall, you are going to have a more sustainable yield of forage off those lands than you would off a continuously grazed system.

At NRCS, because of our focus on soil health, I wanted to share something we are very excited about, and it is a big deal. For the first time I am aware of, anywhere on Earth, we actually have mapped out the soil carbon stock for a continent. Over the last couple of years we completed is a survey across the United States. And then, using our knowledge of soils, we mapped out the current stock of organic matter across the United States.

Why is this important? So, for a conservation planter, or an agronomist, a farmer, you want to understand, what is my organic matter? What is my organic content? So now that we have that base underlying understanding of the soil pattern—or content—organic content, we also know the carbon carrying capacity for those soils. So then we can prescribe the most effective soil health management system to help not only protect the organic matter, but also boost organic matter in your soils.

Ricky and Russell Wiggins are cotton and peanut farmers. They farm about 2,700 acres in Alabama. And when they started in the soil health journey, their soil organic matter was around .75 percent, less than one percent soil organic matter. They decided to try conservation tillage systems using high residue cover crops, and left rye grass in the fields to provide high residue to protect their soils, and better organic matter.  Over several years they have increased their soil organic matter to over 3%, making their soil easier to work with, more pliable, and easier to plant peanuts in. They burn less fuel and replace the tips of their plows less often. Their terraces need less maintenance. When it rains, the terraces flow clean, so there is less maintenance in their ditches and water canals. So overall it is saving them money, saving them wear and tear, saving them fuel. And, in periods of drought like they experienced a couple years ago, when other producers in their area were not able to plant because the soils were dry, they could plant. They got a crop in the ground and got a harvest, because of their approach for soil health.

Weather resilience in soils has always been important and will continue to be even more so as we work to improve our natural defenses against climate change and extreme weather, such as extended droughts and severe storms, as well as indirect effects such as changing threats from pest populations and plant diseases. Healthy soils will be a key component for agricultural producers to successfully adapt to these challenges and will help ensure that we can continue to meet the food demands of a growing population.

Our Conservation Effects Assessment Project, which has now evaluated conservation impacts covering over 300 million acres of cropland, has estimated that the same practices we use to enhance soil health—such as no-till, cover crops, and crop rotation—have reduced edge-of-field sediment loss by 47–73%, phosphorus loss by 33–59%, and nitrogen loss in runoff by 35–58%.

Yet, there is more to be done. Events like drought in Texas and California and algal blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, coupled with the need to meet the demand for food, fiber, and fuel for a growing population, tell us the time is now to enhance the health of our nation’s soils.

I will conclude by saying that I believe improving the health of our nation’s soils is one of the most important things that we can do for this and for future generations. That is because improving soil health not only supports growing the food, fiber, and fuel needed by a rapidly expanding world population, but it also allows us to simultaneously address some of our nation’s most pressing natural resource needs. It allows us to increase resiliency to extreme weather events, improve water quality, increase carbon sequestration, enhance habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, increase farm profitability, and we believe also reduce economic risk associated with crop production.

The CHAIRMAN.  In some cases, it is folks who want to give it a try, but they are leery of the cost, or it may be encumbering risk. It is a transition to a different cropping system. We can help offload some of that risk, and allow them to experiment with different nutrient management approaches, and cover crops, and tillage practices to help them get up to speed. I think we are well equipped for it.

Mr. LUCAS, OKLAHOMA. From first arrival of Europeans until a century ago, the concept of mining the soil existed. It was a resource that you utilized, then you moved on. Starting in the 1930s, perhaps, with a particular focus in my region and the southern, the Great Plains, and the east side of the Rockies, and the evolvement of the Soil Conservation Service, the predecessor to the NRCS, the focus began to shift that this was something that was not to be used and thrown away, but it was to be truly nurtured. And now we are apparently taking the next step, so progress is a positive thing, and we are in that direction.

BOB GIBBS, OHIO.  In northwestern Ohio the soils are heavier, in some parts it is really heavy.  Is no-till hard to adapt in those heavy soil, does it work as well?

Mr. WELLER, chief of NRCS.  It is my understanding that is it is effective, that folks are using no-till, even in those heavier soils. It is perhaps a different management approach, and it takes some adjustment, but it is something that can be adapted, even in a heavier soil environment.

The CHAIRMAN.  We are not 100 percent on board with some of these practices. They haven’t really been embraced. Why do you think there is resistance? It is not new science. It is old science that has resurfaced. What do you see as the barriers to enlisting more farmers and ranchers?

Mr. WELLER. The old adage, don’t fix what is not broken, if they can get a crop, they are making a living, they are doing okay, why introduce what could potentially be a risk to trying something different?

JOHN LARSON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CONSERVATION DISTRICTS, WASHINGTON, D.C.   NACD is a nonprofit organization that represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts, their state and territory associations, and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.  Districts are the local government part of the conservation delivery system, and work with millions of cooperating land owners and operators to help them manage and protect land and water resources on all private lands, and many public lands, in the United States, utilizing that voluntary, incentive-based approach. I like to think of the conservation districts as the original pioneers of soil health. Soil health is, and has been, one of the top priorities of conservation districts across the nation since their creation in the 1930s. In fact, soil health is the very reason that districts were created.

Long term nationwide conservation and production practices have resulted in better protection of our precious soil and water resource base, the foundation of our nation’s food supply. Conservation districts play a key role in this process by working with local producers and land owners to implement critical conservation practices on the ground. In Indiana, districts are key members of the multi-partner Conservation Cropping System Initiative that has vaulted that state to a leading position in the soil health movement. In North Dakota, the Burleigh County Conservation District adopted soil health as its major focus 20 years ago, and today national and international visitors have come to the district for soil health tours and workshops. Other districts are renting no-till drills, supplying cover crop seed, facilitating farmer-led soil health advocates, providing no-till test plots, and much, much more.

Through these and other efforts, conservation districts across the nation are helping producers and land owners get the tools that they need to continue caring for the land and provide food, feed, fiber, and fuel for the world. We firmly believe that it is better to invest in long term conservation practices today than to be forced to pay the escalated cost of repair in the future.

The benefits of improving soil health reach far beyond the farm. Health soils lead to higher water quality, by allowing for better nutrient cycling, and reducing sediment runoff, a better ability to manage water, reduce flood damage, an increase in the amount of soil carbon sequestration that the soil does itself. The benefits of nutrient management on soil fertility within a productive and healthy cropping system utilize soil health practices that are assisting producers. As the Chief mentioned, the 4R’s nutrient stewardship approach, in which producers apply the right source of nutrients at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place, fits perfectly into soil health.

While we are seeing improvements nationwide in both the recognition and the need for the adoption of best management practices for soil health, there is still work to be done. Specifically, we see five main areas that need—that are needed in the future: (1) developing specific soil health conservation practice criteria; (2) increasing soil health research, both the scientific and economic; (3) training NRCS conservation district and other partners and employees; (4) ensuring farm bill programs facilitate farm bill health—healthy soils adoption; and (5) communicating the benefits of soil health to both the agriculture and urban audiences.

World population is expected to hit nine billion by 2050. We believe that the widespread adoption of soil health practices is what will make us successful in meeting that need. If we act now, we have the chance to make a difference on the land that will last for generations.

In the early 1930s, along with the greatest depression this nation ever experienced, came an equally unparalleled ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Following a severe and sustained drought in the Great Plains, the region’s soil began to erode and blow away, creating huge black dust storms that blotted out the sun and swallowed the countryside. Thousands of ‘‘dust refugees’’ left the black fog to seek better lives. But the storms stretched across the nation as soil blown from the Great Plains reached east to New York. Dust even sifted into the White House and onto the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On Capitol Hill, while testifying about the erosion problem, soil scientist Hugh Hammond Bennett threw back the curtains to reveal a sky blackened by dust. Congress unanimously passed legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority and creating the Soil Conservation Service to fight it. Because nearly 3/4 of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land.

As many of you will remember, 2 years ago, our nation experienced a drought of proportions we haven’t seen since the 1930s and 1950s. However, despite this extreme drought, we didn’t enter into a modern-day Dust Bowl situation. There’s a good reason for that—and it’s something that all of us in the conservation community can be proud of: careful, long-term nationwide conservation and production practices that started mainly in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The implementation of these practices has resulted in better protection of our precious soil and water resource base—the foundation of our nation’s food supply.

Soil health’’ is defined as ‘‘the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.’’ Healthy soil ecosystems allow for increased water infiltration, improved water-holding capacity, enhanced nutrient cycling and sequestration, and increased biodiversity. Historically, soil management activities focused on the physical and chemical functions of the soil. Today’s emphasis on soil health recognizes the critical importance of biological function in the soil. ‘‘Soil Ecology’’ emphasizes that soil is a living ecosystem. This ecosystem is impacted by chemical (i.e., fungicides), biological (monocultures) and physical disturbance (tillage) that diminish soil function. There are four key management principles to improve soil ecosystem function: (1) minimize the chemical, biological, and physical disturbance in the soil; (2) keep the soil covered as much as possible throughout the year; (3) maintain a living root, growing for as long as possible, to feed the soil microbes and transfer more solar energy into the soil; and (4) increase crop diversity above ground to add biological diversity to the soil. These basic management activities are central to improving soil health.

The benefits of improved soil health reach far beyond the farm. Healthy soils lead to higher water quality, by allowing for better nutrient cycling and reducing sediment runoff; a better ability to manage water and reduce flood damage; and an increase in the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil itself. Due to its increased water-holding capacity, healthy soil is more resilient against drought; it is also naturally less prone to disease and pest problems, thereby allowing farmers to optimize their use of crop protectants. And because healthy soil requires fewer petroleum-based products for tillage it also saves on energy use and costs.

SHANON PHILLIPS, DIRECTOR, WATER QUALITY DIVISION, OKLAHOMA CONSERVATION COMMISSION, OKLAHOMA CITY, OK. I think many of us appreciate how critical soil health is towards a strong agricultural industry, but, unfortunately, fewer people seem to appreciate how critical it also is towards supporting and protecting the nation’s water supplies.

And we have already talked about how soil health can reduce water pollution, because healthier soils have greater infiltration rates, which means there is less runoff of pollutants that then enter our nation’s waterways. Healthier soils require less supplemental fertilization, which also means lower opportunities for pollution of nutrients to our nation’s waterways. And, finally, healthy soils are living soils, which promote a multitude and variety of microbial communities, which also break down some pollutants into compounds that are less problematic when they enter our waterways. And we know, from data that has been provided by states to the U.S. EPA, that at least 60% of the pollutants which cause impairments to water bodies and our nation’s waters are related to pollutants that come from soils.

Water bodies are recognized as being impaired when they are not meeting the Clean Water Act goals, which means that they are not fishable, they are not safe for swimming, or don’t provide safe drinking water. Toledo this summer  had to turn off the taps due to toxic algae blooms, which are happening all over the nation, from New York State, to Wisconsin, to Oregon, down to Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. A July fourth holiday bloom in 2011 in Grand Lake, Oklahoma dramatically impacted the local community and made the news for sickening one of our Senators. At least 38 water bodies in New York had suspected or confirmed blue-green algae blooms this summer, and toxin production above safe levels was confirmed in at least seven of those systems. Algae blooms occur and persist when a wate rbody receives more nutrients than it can naturally assimilate. These excessive nutrients are often related to soil erosion and the washing of pollutants from land surfaces. Agriculture, although certainly not the only source, is one of the most significant sources of nutrients in the U.S. The good news is that we know and have demonstrated how to reduce these nutrient and sediment-related impacts from agriculture. These successes have been demonstrated all over the nation and many of them are chronicled on the EPA Nonpoint Source Success Story Website at: http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/success319/. This website highlights at least 508 water bodies across the nation where water pollution problems have been solved.

Oklahoma is one of the most successful states in the nation at demonstrating how these voluntary conservation programs that bring a partnership of local landowners, conservation districts, USDA, NRCS, and FSA, and the State Conservation Agency together to implement these conservation practices and solve water quality problems. One of the reasons that we have been so successful in Oklahoma is because we have also made EPA a part of that partnership. And I recognize that that makes a lot of people very nervous, but what we are doing with EPA is we are utilizing their funds from the Section 319 Clean Water Act program to provide technical support to support water quality monitoring. We are using their technical support to design that water quality monitoring, and we are using that data to prove to EPA and others that these conservation programs not only assist farmers in maintaining their operations, but they also solve water quality problems without additional regulation.

The importance of protecting our national soil resources, which were built over geologic time and heavily impacted through settlement and development of our continent, is relatively obvious as it relates to the promotion of a strong agricultural industry, which, in turn, is critical for a healthy national economy. Scientists estimate that as much as 60% of carbon has been lost from agricultural soils since the 1800s. This loss in organic matter affects a soil’s capacity to absorb and hold nutrients and water, which are critical for production of crops and livestock forage. Protection of our soil resources is also mandatory for protection of the nation’s water resources.

Erosion of soil particles, washing of compounds from the soil, and changes in soil structure which affect water infiltration are some of the most significant sources of water quality problems in the U.S. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 777,759 or 67% of impaired miles of U.S. streams and rivers and 9,794,360 or 40% of impairments to lakes, reservoirs and ponds are caused by pollutants related to soil erosion or leaching of pollutants from soils such as excess nutrients, sedimentation, turbidity (suspended particles), pathogens, and pesticides.

Most of these programs relied on voluntary conservation programs to help states and local partners clean up waterbodies affected by pollution which resulted from soil erosion or the washing of pollutants from the soil.  Nonpoint source pollution results when rainfall or snowmelt washes pollutants off or out of the land and into streams. It is much more difficult to measure or control than point source pollution, which is generally thought of as pollution from a defined source, such as a pipe at a waste-water treatment plant. In states like Oklahoma where the majority of land is privately held and used for agricultural production, conservation programs to protect and reduce the impacts from agriculture have been very successful.

Without the EPA partnership, there would not be a Nonpoint Source Program in Oklahoma, nor would there be any documented Nonpoint Source Success Stories. We would not be able to prove that voluntary programs can successfully address water quality problems on our agricultural lands because our limited state and Federal funds from other programs are focused on other purposes. Finally, the EPA oversight and technical support for the 319 program is both beneficial for the overall program and critical toward legitimizing program results.

JAMES HARBACH, FARM MANAGER, SCHRACK FARMS, LOGANTON, PA.  I am very fortunate to have been part of agriculture for more than 40 years. On our operation, I have witnessed the transition from conventionally plowed ground to no-till. Some of our fields have not been plowed for 40 years. We have seen firsthand the transformation of our soils, and the positive results when you farm in nature’s image. In the last decade, with the addition of cover crops, and the belief that plants feed the soil, instead of soil feeding the plants, we have seen incredible results. Some examples include organic matter increases of one percent in 3 years, and steady state infiltration rates that average 4.5 inches per hour. I have no fancy degrees, no financial incentives to be here today, and I don’t enjoy public speaking, but I have a passion for our soils, and the land around the world. I am not an organic farmer, although we no longer use insecticide or fungicides, and only a fraction of the herbicides and fertilizers that we once applied. I used to be part of the group of traditional thinking farmers, but by attending national conferences, field days, and visiting open-minded farmers around the country, I now have an understanding of the important symbiotic relationships that are achieved when you farm in nature’s image. Our farm is part of a like-minded nationwide soil health community that believes that soil health holds the answers to all of our problems.

Agriculture today is farming a degraded resource, and has accepted this as normal. Despite our best efforts, our soil has lost the ability to effectively absorb rainwater, are void of biological life, and are depleted of nutrients. Our soils are so degraded that we must rely on industrial inputs to keep our farmlands productive. We now have a broken water cycle as a result of a broken carbon cycle. The loss of soil organic matter has contributed to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere because we have robbed the soils of its carbon. Soil organic matter has many, many functions, water infiltration, water holding capacity, groundwater recharge, and its ability to cycle and store nitrogen, along with other nutrients.  

On our farms we no longer have water leaving our fields. Even with 4 to 4.5 inch rainfall, we don’t see any erosion.

Conservation programs have historically reacted to resource concerns, instead of being proactive to address the source of the problem. We need to start promoting proactive conservation, instead of reactive conservation. NRCS has embraced soil health as one of their core programs. It is a good start, but what we need is a mammoth soil health education program to teach farmers, Federal and state agencies, regulators, universities, children, and the general public. Farmers need to understand how the soil functions before they will value it as a resource, but government programs need to motivate farms to adopt soil health principles.

We need to have a premium structure that promotes soil building techniques, and, conversely, provides a disincentive for soil degrading practices. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for supporting production agriculture that exports more topsoil nutrients and soil carbon than actual crop productsThe benefits of healthy soil need to be acknowledged in the regulatory process. We need regulatory agencies to recognize that well managed farms with healthy soils are the key to reducing agricultural problems.  Our government programs need to motivate farmers to adopt soil health principals. Many do the opposite, they enable poor stewardship.

More independent, government funded studies need to be conducted on the effects of fertilizer, herbicides, GMO’s and pesticides on the soil community and human health. We cannot rely on industry to fund these studies and produce unbiased results. Each state needs to have long term, no-till farms that exhibit improvements in soil health. These farms need to be central in soil health research and education programs. Soil health farms need to monitor improvements in profitability, water infiltration and retention, soil organic matter increases and soil generation. Can agriculture sequester enough soil carbon to make a measureable difference in atmospheric CO2 concentrations? In the book Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbably Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, Dr. Christine Jones states that every 1 ton increase in soil organic carbon represents 3.67 tons of CO2 sequestered from the atmosphere. Can healthy soils significantly reduce rain water runoff? Do healthy soils leak nutrients or does this only occur in poorly structured and poorly managed soils? Changing weather patterns are linked to soil management. Bare, exposed, dry soils put more heat into air and change flow patterns above the fields. Bare soils do not cycle the water, lowering the ability for the plants to contribute to local moisture. New soil testing technologies like the Haney Soil Health Tool and Solvita CO2 Burst that measure biological life and nutrient availability need to be promoted and incorporated into crop nutrient recommendations. What will motivate farms to achieve good soil health and increase the soil organic matter—regulations or education and gaining a better understanding?

If you promote soil health principles, be prepared for a huge push back from the agriculture industries that sell products to farmers. Once a farm restores healthy soils, few of these products are needed and it will reduce industry sales. Farmers that contract with NRCS and are given incentive payments for installing practices (EQIP, CREP, CRP, WRP) should be required to attend soil health trainings and education programs.

TIMOTHY J. WALZ, MINNESOTA.   In 2012, average corn yield was 126.2 bushels where cover crops were employed, 115 bushels without it. So we know that cover crops work.

JILL L. SACKETT, EXTENSION EDUCATOR, AGRICULTURE PRODUCTION SYSTEMS, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA EXTENSION REGIONAL OFFICE, MANKATO, MN.  I started my professional career with cover crops basically the minute I started my professional career with Extension. I did my best to hit the ground running, and, thankfully enough, I had some really good resources out there on a national level, like SARE, on a regional level, like the Midwest Cover Crop Council, and then probably about 20 years off and on of cover crop research from the state, some great soil and water conservation districts, and some wonderful farmers. At that time, adoption rates of cover crops were very low. But we all forged ahead, and we were hosting education events. We were doing demonstration plots, and we were working with some amazing farmers that had innovative ideas. We quickly figured out that there are two main focuses for why Minnesota farmers are interested in cover crops, the first of which is soil health, which is why we are here today. Now, when you ask a farmer, why are you interested in trying cover crops, the phrase soil health may not actually be what comes out of his or her mouth, but what they do describe definitely makes up quality, healthy, productive soils. They share with us that they would like to see a decrease in soil erosion, an increase in soil organic matter, an increase in natural nutrient cycling. They want to see more water infiltration. During drought, they want to be able to have higher water holding capacity in that soil, all of which are part of what makes a soil healthy.

The second point, and not surprising for the Land of 10,000 Lakes, is water quality. What we noticed in Minnesota the last few years, unfortunately, is that we tend to have far too much water in the spring, and far too little water in the summer and fall. Cover crops are one of the few practices that actually allow us to deal with both of those issues. The use of cover crops allows us to take up excess water, to take up excess nutrients, and the roots help hold our soil in place, all of those things we want in our fields, where we need them most. On the flipside, when it comes to drought, a living plant can actually shade the soil, a dead cover crop can mulch the soil, both of which help decrease soil evaporation.

This brings us to an excellent story that shows the interrelationship of cover crops, soil health, and water quality. In 2013 it wouldn’t stop snowing and raining, and a lot of our farmers in southeast Minnesota weren’t even able to plant their cash crops. Some of them decided to plant cover crops, many for the first time ever, in order to keep their soil in place, and to keep any nutrient that they had put on that soil in that field. The farmer in question here decided to use oilseed radish, and in September he called and said, I don’t know what to do. It is really dry, and yet these plants are growing robustly. The roots are 3? in diameter, the leaves are bushy and about 2.5 feet tall. What do I do? My neighbors are telling me that I need to just plow it under and get rid of it. My NRCS person is telling me, no, leave it be, you need to protect that soil. He had gotten my phone number from his soil and water conservation district, and he gave me a call because he knew I had had some experience with oil seed radish. And, in my experience, the chemical makeup of this particular plant allows it to decompose quickly in the spring, so I encouraged him to not listen to his neighbors, and listen to his NRCS agent instead, and leave it be. And that is where we left our conversation. This June I was pleasantly surprised to find an e-mail from him, where he told me that the oil seed radish had basically dissolved by planting time, and that the soil conditions were some of the best he had ever seen in his 41 years of planting. But my favorite line from the e-mail was, ‘‘We showed them.’’

I had the expertise of the Midwest Cover Crop Council; local research from University of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and USDA Agricultural Research Service; and a few experienced Soil and Water Conservation District personnel and farmers to guide me in my efforts. Some of these resources already had 15 or more years of cover crop experience. In the beginning there was some polite skepticism, some eye-rolling and, in some cases, actual sleeping in the back row. But, I can honestly say there was also genuine interest in the message I was sharing.

Minnesota is known as the ‘‘Land of 10,000 Lakes.’’ We actually have 11,842. And, we’re home to 6,594 rivers and streams. All told, we have just over 13 million acres of surface water. ‘‘Water, water, everywhere,’’ and yet we also have had to deal with our fair share of drought conditions. Too often lately, there are places in Minnesota that deal with flooding in the spring and then drought in the summer and fall. Needless to say, Minnesota knows water, and we’re well aware of how important it is to our 26 million acres of agricultural land as well as to our drinking needs and recreational activities. Research and common sense show that having growing plants on the land as long as possible helps to use excess water and nutrients and also helps keep the soil in place. During dry periods, the shading action of a green plant or the mulching action of a dead plant can help decrease soil water evaporation. With their potential to assist in water quality and quantity, cover crops are definitely starting to draw attention.

Cover crops are only a piece of the puzzle, however. We also need to see an increase in conservation tillage practices like strip till or no-till; additional crops in our rotation instead of only one or two; and an increased use of best management practices.

Mr. LUCAS. What are the greatest challenges? Is it lack of cooperation between entities back home? Is it persuading the very traditional farmers to try something new? Just what are your chief challenges in moving your message forward

Mr. HARBACH. We are very active in Pennsylvania with the PA No-Till Alliance, and we spend a lot of our time ON education, and seminars, and field days. And the biggest problem we have is just getting people to understand. There is a lack of understanding. I live in a valley with a lot of Amish community, and they are not ones to come out to this kind of stuff, so to penetrate them is difficult. But, basically, it is just the lack of understanding from the farmers’ perspective.  It took me several years to get where I am today, and it is really hard to expect a farmer to get there overnight. It is going to take a long time to get that level of understanding.

Mr. LUCAS. In my hometown, we had 14,000 people on the Census roll in 1930, after the Dust Bowl of the Depression, of the 1930s, the droughts of the 1950s all left, we are not quite back to 4,000 people yet, so the quality of soil will impact the ability of your citizens, your fellow neighbors, to be able to create a livelihood. You can see many ulcerations if you fly over much of my part of western Oklahoma, in spite of all of the decades of efforts.

The CHAIRMAN. You mentioned that you no longer use insecticides and fungicides, and only a fraction of the herbicides and fertilizer that you once used. What are the direct benefits or challenges you see with using so much less fertilizer and herbicides?

Mr. HARBACH. It is not really a challenge. Initially it is, to make that first big step, but there is so much research done. And I have to say, from ARS, there are a lot of good things coming out of there, because that is research that is done that is not industry funded, and we need to increase that. By not using the insecticides or as many chemicals, it is a systems approach. Once you achieve soil health, you have the beneficial bugs that take out the critters that you are applying an insecticide for, or maybe a fungicide, and the fungicide is very hard on soils, and we need to get people to understand that once you have achieved that certain level of soil health, that some of these other input costs can go away.

CHRIS JAHN, PRESIDENT, THE FERTILIZER INSTITUTE.   The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) is the leading voice of the fertilizer industry, representing the public policy, communication and statistical needs of producers, manufacturers, retailers and transporters of fertilizer. The Institute’s members play a key role in producing and distributing vital crop nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are used to replenish soils throughout the United States that in turn produce healthy and abundant supplies of food, fiber and fuel.   Commercial fertilizers have a critical role to play in boosting crop production to the levels necessary to meet the demands of this rapidly growing world population. Crop nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and secondary and micronutrients such as calcium, zinc and iron are responsible for between 40 and 60% of today’s total food production.  For a high yielding corn production system (250 bu/acre), a soil with 2.5% organic matter could provide 20% of the annual recommended nitrogen. The average estimate of available nitrogen, used by agronomist, is 20 pounds of available nitrogen for every 1% of organic matter.

 

 

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