DEKALB, Ill. — Building a consensus around profitability and environmental sustainability is the fundamental hurdle in efforts to improving soil health and water quality.
Opportunities to build resilience on Midwest farms were the topic of a recent webinar hosted by American Farmland Trust. AFT’s Jean Brokish, Midwest program manager, and Emily Bruner, Midwest science director, led the discussion.
What are the major challenges and opportunities facing farmers who are using or might want to use practices that build soil health?
Bruner: There are many challenges anytime you approach something new. If it’s not your norm, there’s challenges involved from learning, experimenting. Farmers are struggling just to make ends meet and have been for a while. There’s a lot of market volatility, there’s a lot of upfront costs involved with changing management practices that may not even factor into the budget when you’re really trying to make ends meet.
You layer that into our changing climate and altered growing seasons; we have a lot more frequent and intense rainfall which prevents a lot of spring planting days in the Midwest. We saw that with record prevent planting in 2019, setting records for how many farmers were not able to get out into the fields and plant an insurable crop.
A lot of our farmland, specifically in the Midwest, is rented. It’s averages about 40% nationwide and that gets up to 80% in some areas. We’re around 60% in the Midwest. So, just being able to access that land and what that means for how much you’re willing to invest in it above and beyond a long term. Trying to figure out how you can encourage that long-term growth relationship is also a big challenged.
Brokish: Farmers continuously struggle to make a living from their land and bring the new generation into the farming operation. The opportunity that we see is building resiliency into that system, and a great way to do that is really to start at the foundation by looking at the soil.
It’s been encouraging because there’s been a real awakening and recognition in the role that healthy soil plays in adapting to some of the challenges with climate change. By increasing the soil organic matter you can really improve the ability of the soil to function which allows the rainfall to enter. We’re not getting ponding, we’re not getting runoff, we’re not getting crusting on the soil and then the soil also has the ability to hold the water just like a sponge. An increase in that soil organic also improves some of the soil by biodiversity and nutrient recycling.
“The non-operating landowner is still kind of an elusive audience.”— Emily Bruner, Midwest Science Director for American Farmland Trust
The good news is many of the practices that improve soil health also can address some of the economic constraints by helping farmers increase their profitability and help them adapt to the changing climate conditions, and then in offering some environmental outcomes that benefit all of us.
The four principles of soil health are minimizing disturbance, maximizing cover, maximizing biodiversity and maximizing the presence of living roots. Two of the most common practices for soil health are cover crops and no-till/strip-till. Both of those really go a long ways to supporting those soil health principles.
If you’re renting an apartment or a home, you’re not necessarily going to put in the same level of investment as you would if you owned it. So, getting farmers to have relationships with their landowners or access land that they can own is a very significant issue in making sure that conservation can be implemented on such a large scale.
Brokish: We have observed both in our work and work through some of our partners working in this space is that there is definitely evidence of a disconnect of farmers and landowners perceptions of each other and what their commitments are for those conservation practices. We know that farmers are more likely to implement these practices on land that they own. There tends to be a perception that the landowners aren’t supportive of it. Or, from the landowners they believe their farmer is not supportive of it.
A study of non-operating landowners that American Farmland Trust completed looking at data from 13 states confirmed that landowners are supportive of these practices and in many cases they’re willing to work with the farmers to find ways, be it a longer lease or in some cases restructuring rental agreements to help facilitate the adoption of those practices.
In my perspective it’s really just like a disconnect in terms of not having that conversation. And so encouraging through AFT’s work, but also the work of our partners and people who are working with farmers, helping facilitate those conversations and connect the dots is really an opportunity for land that is rented.
Bruner: The non-operating landowner is still kind of an elusive audience. A lot of the work that AFT has pioneered around that issue sometimes it was almost seen as taboo to get between a landowner and their tenant because that was their own relationship, you don’t want to necessarily complicate things or intrude. But what we’re finding is the more and more that we learn about these different groups the more opportunities there are to really engage those conversations, and once those conversations are engaged it’s a pretty clear path for satisfying both parties on doing better by the land generally.
These types of practices are not just beneficial for the environment a lot of times. They’re also beneficial to farmers’ bottom line. Can you talk about the economic studies that AFT has done to scientifically support the transition to regenerative agriculture practices?
Bruner: We authored two soil health case studies specifically in Illinois with farmers that we work with. We specifically look at farmers that have been successful in implementing these practices because a lot of times during transition there’s a learning curve, there’s some different opportunities there. So, we target folks that have had a good four years or so of implanting these practices and had some success and then we said what’s different.
We looked at their additional costs based on these practices and we looked at the additional returns on investment, whether that’s through reduced inputs, yield bumps, or if there’s a difference. What we found for the most part, especially here in the Midwest, in one of our case studies we had a $22 per acre increase in net income, and in another we had a $34 per acre increase net income. A lot of that came from reducing inputs and allowing the soil to function and take advantage of that shift in idea from increased profitability as opposed to just increasing yield.
What practices do we know work when it comes to building soil health. How can we better support farmers in adopting these practices?
Brokish: The type of agriculture in the Midwest tends to be row crop — lots of corn and soybeans. So, really with that type of agriculture we have the technical capacity, we have the machinery and the know-how to implement cover crops and to do reduced tillage practices.
You really get a lot of co-benefits from those practices through soil temperature and moisture regulation, reduced soil loss from wind and water, winter and early season weed suppression, improved soil structure, increased diversity of soil biological communities, and nutrient capture and availability.
Those are really the two practices that we’re emphasizing through our work and there have been a lot of studies looking at those. But it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and implementing those practices. There is some workload and some support that needs to go into it.
Bruner: When we think about helping to support farmers, one of the things that we see time and time again when we’re actually on the ground working with farmers is that they’re not necessarily hearing a consistent message about the effectiveness of these practices in general. What we’ve seen is a lot of times it only takes one bad advice or one bad year.
Brokish: Or, it didn’t work for your neighbor and therefore your whole neighborhood is convinced it doesn’t exist.
Bruner: I think we can all do a better job making sure that we get consistent messaging to the farmers that these changes don’t happen overnight. Let’s set realistic expectations and let’s make sure that we have tailored management plans and technical assistance for each farmer because each farmer is going to come from a different vantage point, they’re going to have different needs.
Different systems are going to work that may not work for their neighbor. So, we need to do a better job of making sure that we as a unified conservation professional space help to set those realistic expectations and help to provide those unique and tailored approaches so that we’ve enabled success because once you’ve gotten through that experimental phase and you’ve figured out how these systems work for you then you can start to remove inputs. Then you can start to reduce tillage passes, and then you can really see those economic returns, as well. But you have to invest in the success and really reach out for the resources that you need that are tailored to your unique opportunity.