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Eric Niemeyer’s MadMax Farms lies in the middle of the Upper Scioto Watershed in Ohio. His motivation for adopting soil health practices has been to “make dead soil alive again.”

Case studies show soil health practices increase farm profitability

Farms in California, Illinois, Ohio and New York saw increases in yield and water quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Healthier soil on farmland brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to society, according to results from new case studies released by the American Farmland Trust (AFT). These case studies were developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

AFT Water Initiative director Dr. Michelle Perez, the lead researcher on the project, unveiled the case studies at the Soil & Water Conservation Society annual conference July 30. The case studies were developed as part of a 2018 NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant project, “Accelerating Soil Health Adoption by Quantifying Economic & Environmental Outcomes & Overcoming Barriers on Rented Lands,” and featured farms in California, Illinois, Ohio and New York.

“Increasingly, we understand that better soil health – and specific practices aimed at building soil organic matter, fostering microbial life in the soil, reducing nutrient loss and protecting soil from erosion – lead to higher net income for farming operations. These case studies contribute to the growing body of quantitative evidence that improving soil health increases farmer profitability,” Perez said.

The two-page case studies focus on corn/soybean production in Illinois and Ohio, almond production in California and a diversified rotation (sweet corn, alfalfa, corn for silage or grain) in New York. The four farmers featured implemented soil health practices like no-till or strip-till, nutrient management, cover crops, compost and mulching.

“When it comes to conservation, producers have to make decisions based on what makes the most sense for their operations,” NRCS chief Matthew Lohr said. “These case studies provide information on the economic benefits of using soil health management systems, demonstrating the value of adopting these systems.”

With soil health management, producers can increase their yield, decrease their risk and input costs and improve their profits, all while conserving the nation’s resources for the public at large, on their farms, in their watersheds and beyond. Soil health management systems are good for farmers and for the public.

“Increased implementation of soil health is critical to AFT’s holistic approach to saving the land that sustains us," AFT president and chief executive officer John Piotti said. "Ensuring a sustainable future for this planet and our society requires we value the land, the practices on the land and the people who steward that land. AFT’s case studies showcase farmers who took the risk and are now enjoying the benefits of implementing practices that will support food production for a growing population while improving our environment and sequestering carbon. Farmers across the country can now embrace these practices and, with the help of staffers from AFT and our partner NRCS, put them into practice with greater confidence and profitability.”

Highlights from the case studies include:

  • All four of the farmers profiled saw improved yields ranging from 2% to 22% that they attributed, in part, to their soil health practices. The average return on investment was 176% for the four farms in the study and ranged from 35% to 343%. The study accounted for other factors at play in increased yield, such as improved seed varieties and increased seeding rates.
  • All four farmers saw improved water quality outcomes both by witnessing reduced soil and water runoff and as estimated by USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT). NTT estimated that nitrogen reductions ranged from 40% to 98%, phosphorus reductions ranged from 74% to 92% and sediment reductions ranged from 76% to 96% from specific fields in each farm.
  • All four farmers saw improved climate outcomes, as estimated by USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool. The tool estimated that total greenhouse gas emission reductions from specific fields in each farm ranged from 16% to 560%, corresponding to taking 0.75-17.00 cars off the road.

All four farmers have been implementing different soil health practices over different time frames and a variety of cropping systems. With these case studies and the ones that will be released in the fall, AFT is building a diverse library of on-farm examples of soil health investments that have led to economic gain.

“We hope that farmers who have been considering adding soil health practices to their operation will be able to use these case studies to approach their existing landowners, from whom they rent their land, to discuss sharing the risks and rewards of the soil health investments,” AFT said in a statement. “We think farmers may be able to use the case studies with a new landlord to add new fields. Should that materialize, we hope farmers will also share the case studies with their bankers to secure additional financing for the farm expansion.”

Farmers across the country can reach out to their local NRCS and Soil & Water Conservation District staff to help them implement soil health practices on their farm. In the watersheds featured in the four case studies, farmers can reach out to both the local NRCS and district staff as well as the four AFT authors of the case studies.

These first four case studies can be found on AFT’s “Accelerating Soil Health” webpage.

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