Soil Health Renaissance Part II: Formulating a Strategy

By Bruce Knight

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It may be possible to succeed in some businesses without trying, but that's certainly not going to work for agriculture.  To make a profit producing food, fiber and fuel, you must put in a lot of hard work, and you must have a strategy.  And part of your efforts should involve maintaining and improving the health of your soil.

As I've noted before, soil health is not just a simple matter of measuring the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.  There's more to it, like water holding capacity, organic matter and micronutrients.  And those components are tougher to measure.

But we've got some well-qualified experts wrestling with this issue so that everyone in agriculture can benefit.  The Soil Renaissance initiative of the Farm Foundation, NFP and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation is focusing on soil health to ensure that we find ways to enhance this critical resource.

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Just this week at the 6th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the group announced a strategic plan that offers a cohesive and comprehensive approach to advancing soil health.  I'm delighted to be part of that process, which drew on the recommendations of thought leaders in production agriculture, agribusiness, the academic community, NGOs and government agencies.

Our goal is to increase awareness of the importance of soil health as a component of our natural resources and to encourage landowners and others to make soil health an essential consideration in land use decisions.  Over the past year, I've been emphasizing sustainability and maximizing resources, including the land itself through planting cover crops and double cropping.  Now we have a broad, national strategy to help us grapple with some of the more challenging aspects of improving soil health.

The Soil Renaissance strategic plan adopts USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service's definition of soil health:  the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.  According to the plan, building soil health involves four essentials:  measurement, economics, research and education. 

Measurement includes incorporating soil health measures into standardized soil health tests that are readily available, affordable and commercially viable.  Economic considerations are also important:  quantifying the effects of soil health on financial risks and returns.  Since research also will play a key role in advancing soil health, we need to involve the scientific and academic community in the process.  In addition, educating the public (and ourselves) on the importance of soil health is essential. 

In early July, the Soil Renaissance will offer a new website, www.SoilRenaissance.org, which will enable everyone to track the progress of the project.  Input from producers and other stakeholders is welcome and encouraged.  Collaboration is vital to the success of the effort, and the goal for the Soil Renaissance is to serve as a central hub to foster understanding of the value of soil health, progress in identifying ways to improve it, gaps to be filled and ways to help move forward.

Soil Renaissance is committed to a science-based integrated systems approach developed through partnership.  The project seeks to be inclusive and representative as well as transparent and full of common sense.  The goal is purposeful outcomes with measurable impacts following a process of continuing evaluation and improvement.

I am personally excited about this effort.  All of us who work the land know that the soil is our most valuable resource.  It's easy to take for granted as we worry about excessive or insufficient rainfall, rising or falling temperatures and spiraling or sinking prices.  Working together, I believe we can find a way to effectively measure soil health, improve it and benefit from greater productivity.  That will be a blessing to us as individual producers, to our national economy and to hungry people around the world.

 About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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