Build a Legacy

Growers focus on enriching soils in their fields for the farmers of tomorrow.

Image by Getty Images, photo illustration by Barry Falkner

Perspiration, prayer and perseverance. This is how farms are built. But, when you pass on a passion for soil health to your children so they can pay it forward to theirs, that’s how legacies are born.

For the Willis family, of Gentry County, Missouri, the legacy was launched in the 1980s, when Ron Willis converted the family farm to no-till. It continued in 2012, when his son Michael started planting cover crops to further improve soil health. Michael’s son Matthew is next in line to embrace the Willis way--to leave the farm better than they found it.

“The soil is the foundation of our operation, and the more we can do to feed it and improve it, the better off we’ll be,” Michael says.

With a burgeoning global population, rising demand for food, changing weather patterns and a million acres of U.S. farmland vanishing annually, the farm families of the future will depend on the farm families of today to advance their legacies.

Fortunately, farmers such as Annie Dee are listening. “I think soil health is the most important thing going in farming,” says Dee, who has spent decades building organic matter through crop diversity, no-till and cover crops on her Aliceville, Alabama, farm. “It’s the way that we’re going to feed the 10 billion people living on the planet in 2050.”

For Waverly, Iowa, corn and soybean farmer Mark Mueller, the benefits of soil health often demand a leap of faith. “It’s like putting an offering in the plate,” Mueller explains. “There might be a short-term cost, but, the benefits will play out over the long-term, maybe in my lifetime, maybe somebody else’s.”


As farmers like Dee, Mueller and the Willis family have come to understand, cover crops, no-till and other soil-health practices are prescriptions for building organic matter, porosity and soil structure. These, in turn, create a living space for biology, large and small, that deliver an additional benefit--a soil that works for the farmer to increase fertility, nutrient efficiency and much more, all while reducing inputs.

Farmers who prioritize soil health have also come to know that the bottom line is not exclusively the last line of the ledger. It’s how each farming practice plays out in perpetuity.

Numerous organizations are helping farmers make a difference on their farms--compiling economic data and best-practice tips, and offering encouragement. These include The Soil Renaissance, the Noble Research Institute, the Soil Health Champions Network, the Master Farmer Program, the NRCS Unlock the Secrets in the Soil initiative and the Soil Health Partnership, to name a few.

Farming for the future could pay dividends for years to come, adds Shefali Mehta, executive director of the Soil Health Partnership, an organization devoted to helping farmers understand the economics of soil-health practices. “Everything we have comes from our soils. Our ability to survive as a species is completely dependent on how well we take care of the resource that gives us this life and sustains us.”A RICH INVESTMENT

For the Willis farm, soil health “is getting back to the basics of what makes soil function,” points out Michael Willis, who farms 1,000 acres in a corn and soybean rotation, and runs a cow/calf operation. “Instead of applying more nutrients, maybe we can better use and recycle what’s already there. That way, we’re reinvesting our soil dividends back into our operation.”

To help the Willises quantify soil-health practices, Michael takes soil samples within management zones that are based on soil type. Each point is georeferenced to latitude/longitude coordinates, which allows him to take samples from roughly the same reference point each time.

So far, the results are encouraging. Soil samples taken in 2011 before fields were cover-cropped showed organic matter readings from the upper 2 to the low 3%. “When we took the samples again five years later after using a cereal rye cover crop in our corn/soybean rotation, we saw a half-percent increase in organic matter across the board.”

Michael advises farmers wanting to try cover crops to “start small enough where it’s easy to manage but big enough that you have some skin in the game.”

“You have to have the mind-set that you’re going to give it a period of time to work,” adds Bill Buckner, former CEO of the Noble Research Institute (originally The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, formed in 1945 after the Dust Bowl to help farmers and ranchers advance stewardship). “Don’t do it alone. Reach out to farmers who have implemented soil-health practices successfully. Learn from their trial and error,” he says.

Michael Willis is a member of the Soil Health Champions Network, which is comprised of more than 200 landowners and operators who are implementing conservation practices on their land. The network was created by the National Association of Conservation Districts. DRIVEN BY TECHNOLOGY

Annie Dee is rising to the soil-health challenge, too--and leaving a rich and fertile mark on her farm. She has 30 years on and off in cover crops and 20 years of no-till.

What goes into her cover-crop cocktail depends on what she plans to plant the following spring, explains Dee, who is also a Soil Health Champion. “Different plants feed the soil in different ways. This year, we have turnips, tillage radishes, black oats, clover and winter peas. The turnips and tillage radishes have really improved our soil texture and tilth,” she says.

Dee adds that having a diversity of crops and cover crops “breaks some of the disease and insect problems you tend to get when you plant the same crops over and over.”

The farm is managed with state-of-the-art technology designed for efficiency and energy savings. The Dees installed a programmable irrigation system with moisture sensors to apply just the right amount of water to their fields. The irrigation system has 18 center pivots and irrigates more than 2,700 acres of corn and soybeans.

To efficiently run thislarge of an operation, the Dees installedan 80-foot-tall Wi-Fi tower that providescoverage to the whole farm, which is 20 square miles. They use Wi-Fi on their smartphones or computers to control their irrigation system.

“We produce good-quality food for people all around the world,” Dee adds. “So, many challenges face us every day. There is such enjoyment in seeing things grow, and it is so rewarding to realize we are caring for God’s creation.”


Soil health has always been a priority for Larkin Martin, a seventh-generation farmer who produces corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and peanuts on about 7,000 acres near Courtland, Alabama.
But, Martin’s concepts of soil health are changing. “I am convinced that farmers collectively need to better understand soil health,” Martin stresses. “At the same time, we’re realizing that soil health is a much more complex topic than how much potassium, phosphate, nitrogen and micronutrients are available.”

Martin began no-tilling in the 1990s in response to crop injury from sand-blowing. “We’ve since converted to minimum-till because of issues related to rutting, which often occurs when harvesting in wet conditions,” she says.

For Martin, soil health is vital “because of the resiliency that it imparts in this very dry part of the Mid-South. We also farm a lot of highly erodible land, so it’s a critical issue for us for that reason, too. In dryland farming, soil health is crucial to yield stability.”ECONOMICAL DATA

In order for the soil-health movement to move into the mainstream, farmers need data that demonstrates that improving soil health is an economical practice.

Wally Tyner, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, is working on a multiyear study on the economics of cover crops, paying $1,000 to farmers who supply information about their farms on a confidential basis, whether they use cover crops or not.

“There’s lots of information about the technical aspects of cover crops and how they can help with erosion and nitrate leakage,” Tyner says. “But, there’s not enough information on whether cover crops pay. We just don’t know. The study is designed to get at those economic issues.”

According to several on-farm case studies conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research, soil-health practices such as cover crops and no-till are worthy undertakings.

During the three-year study period, Midwest corn and soybean farmers who experimented with cover crops and/or no-till found that while planting costs for a cover crop increased by up to $38 per acre, fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre, erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre and yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with the adoption of these conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre.

The savings in fertilizer costs likely come from enhanced nutrient cycling in a rich soil environment, says Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, which was created by the Noble Research Institute.

“When you enhance the biology of the soil, you build up organic matter, which contains carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus,” Honeycutt says. “When microorganisms feed on carbon, they release the nitrogen and phosphorus that the plants can then take up. The greater organic matter also provides an environment that promotes better root growth.

“When you couple greater nutrient availability with more roots to take up these nutrients, then you increase overall nutrient-use efficiency in the system,” he adds. “Not only do the plants benefit, but, because fewer nutrients are lost, it benefits the farmer’s bottom line as well as the environment.”


For Iowa farmer Mark Mueller, going long on soil health has payoffs beyond the farm. “We have to demonstrate to the non-farming public that we are moving the needle on water quality, soil quality, environmental issues, stewardship and sustainability,” he says.

To help quantify the benefits of good soil health, Mueller is participating in a farmer initiative of the National Corn Growers Association. The Soil Health Partnership will use data from Mueller’s operation and more than 100 others in 14 states to help identify best practices that can improve soil health while boosting yields and improving environmental outcomes.

“The primary goal is to get this data back into the farmers’ hands so they can make better decisions and understand how their choices impact their operations,” says Mehta, of the Soil Health Partnership. Eventually, the data will also be released to the public.

Early in the study, economists have teased out a few hypotheses that may explain why many economic studies on cover crops and no-till don’t always indicate a return on investment. “How farm-health practices affect a farmer’s bottom line has to do with the environment, soil type and the business model of the farm,” Mehta explains. “We might have two neighboring fields with very similar soil types, but, because the farms are managed differently and have their own business goals, they can have very different outcomes.”


While cover crops, no-till, crop rotation and grazing can definitely improve soil structure, moisture retention, pH and erosion control, there is much less known about their impact on the mysterious microorganisms and other forms of biology vying for dominance within the soil.

These relationships can be managed to the benefit of the farmer by not letting one microorganism get a leg up on the others, explains soil microbiologist Kris Nichols, former chief scientist for the Rodale Institute and current owner of KRIS Systems.

“When an organism becomes ‘bad,’ it’s because its population has gotten out of control,” he explains. “If you plant a continuous crop, it’s like giving the soil the doughnut diet. You’re feeding it the same thing over and over again. So, the only organisms that grow and repopulate are organisms that exclusively feed off that.”

Diversity aboveground equates to diversity belowground, Nichols adds. “You provide different foods for different organisms. High levels of diversity among organisms in the soil help keep each population in check.

“Predator and prey relationships in the soil are very important,” he continues. “Every organism is either eating another organism or being eaten by one.”


Money doesn’t grow on trees, but in Keith Berns’ world, it does grow on plants--in the form of carbon. “Carbon is the currency that drives the biological systems within the soil,” says Berns, a Nebraska farmer and cofounder of Green Cover Seed, which ships out about 20 million pounds of specially blended cover crop seed annually.

Berns compares the interactions in the soil with the economy of a large country, a relationship he has coined “carbonomics.” “Like currency, carbon can be produced, spent and stored. It also has multiple forms--gas, liquid and solid--and can transform easily from one to another. Carbon currency can also be held in the soil as organic matter and is one of the most important indicators of a healthy soil,” Berns points out. “High organic matter soils, like capital-rich economies, are very productive, stable, resilient and efficient.”

Organic matter is your capital investment within the soil economy, Berns continues. “But, it has to be built over time, and it can only be built if you have excess carbon. That’s why cover crops are so important. Cover crops are putting a lot of carbon into the system, and you’re not mechanically harvesting them and hauling them away.”

Soil biology can also provide a labor force that works for the farmer, Berns adds. “Promoting soil biology is like hiring trillions of tiny workers to mine, manufacture, transport and deliver plant-needed resources.”

“When you store carbon in the ground, you are building soil health,” explains Buckner, of the Noble Research Institute. “When you build soil health, you build a better, more resilient production system that better addresses the various climatic challenges that we will face in the future. Soil is the last biological frontier.”

What Is Soil Health?

According to soil-health experts, improving soil health on agricultural lands should mimic what happens naturally in our prairies and forests, where soils are alive with critters great and small, and plants are present year-round. This biomimicry seems logical, since modern-day farms were originally hewn from diverse, natural ecosystems.

Ray Archuleta, retired soil-health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who now farms in southeast Missouri and is partner/owner of the Soil Health Academy, says five aboveground principles are crucial to this approach.

> Grow a living root in the soil 24/7. Roots from cover crops and other plants feed the fungi and bacteria in the soil. Cover-crop blends create an architecture under the soil consisting of roots of varying lengths. These roots are the pathways that feed the biology of the soil.

> Synergize cover crops with crop rotations. Diversity is the key to breaking up disease cycles and delaying pest resistance.

> Do not disturb. “Natural systems don’t invert or till themselves. They use the soil biology to modify the soil and create pore space. It’s very critical that no-till or minimum disturbance is an important part of the soil system,” Archuleta says.

> Give the soil some skin. “When we have cover crops, and we roll the cover down, we create a natural skin with a lot of residue on the surface,” Archuleta explains. This skin from residue or cover crops protects the soil from wind and water erosion, helps with moisture retention, suppresses weeds, prevents crusting of the soil and becomes food for diverse organisms. In addition, 35% of the skin becomes organic matter.

> Integrate livestock. Grazing livestock on croplands helps a farmer or rancher be more economically resilient. For example, grazing livestock can turn a failed crop into protein that can be sold to offset losses. Manure from ruminants also feeds a myriad of organisms, helps regulate pH and builds soil structure and organic matter.


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