Opinion: NRCS soil health effort is deep, impactful and taking root across the nation

By Guest Author

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By Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service

An opinion piece published recently on AgriPulse (“2018 Farm Bill - Soil Health”) outlined the importance of the growing interest in improving the health of the nation's agricultural soils. I want to build upon the article's points and highlight a few of the significant impacts USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its many partners have made by focusing on supporting farmers and ranchers as they use science-based solutions to improve the health of their soils.  

A robust effort is needed to not just promote soil health, but provide extensive training for both conservationists and producers, ensure that NRCS has the capacity at the field level to support farmers and ranchers, and to expand our scientific understanding of the physical, chemical, and biological properties of healthy soils. I also know that rebuilding and regenerating our nation's soil is a huge endeavor, which will require the contributions, ingenuity, and hard work of experts and organization from across the nation.

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Nearly four years ago, NRCS launched its ground-breaking soil health campaign at the farm of soil health pioneer Dave Brandt. While this work has been successful in increasing awareness on the importance soil health to farming and ranching operations, there is much more to the effort.

NRCS has made soil health the centerpiece of its conservation planning and on-the-ground delivery approach. We started by providing training to thousands of our colleagues in NRCS's field offices as well as to our partners, such as Soil and Water Conservation Districts and-crucially-to thousands of farmers and ranchers across the nation.

To expand our training capacity and accelerate service for producers, in the fall of 2014 NRCS created a cadre of soil health experts. This training team, strategically located in offices across the country, provides the best available science, training, and technical resources to our local field offices, conservation partners, and agricultural producers. Since last October, this team has delivered training and outreach to well over 17,000 participants at more than 200 soil health events across the nation. 

But outreach and training are just one part of the work. Through the Farm Bill's conservation programs, we're providing farmers and ranchers the financial and technical support they need to make soil health a part of their operation. Since 2012, NRCS and its partners have helped producers install soil health practices on more than 40 million acres of working agricultural lands. 

These Farm Bill programs include the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), through which NRCS works with partner organizations and businesses to more fully develop, implement, and evaluate soil health management systems on farms and ranches throughout the country. In the past two years, NRCS has invested nearly $24 million in 23 RCPP projects focused primarily on soil health. Through these locally-led projects, we are working closely with more than 200 partner organizations who in turn are leveraging more than $33 million in additional resources to expand soil health opportunities for producers. 

And through the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program, NRCS is co-investing with additional partners in projects that stimulate the development and adoption of innovative approaches and technologies for conservation on agricultural lands. CIG soil health projects are designed to help answer the scientific, economic, and agronomic questions about soil health that can help lead to more widespread adoption of soil health practices. 

For instance, the Midwest Cover Crops Council utilized a CIG award to develop and deploy a Cover Crop Decision Tool that helps farmers throughout the Midwest evaluate their options and receive cover crop recommendations, such as species and seeding rates; these recommendations are tailored to their local conditions, soils and management goals.

CIG funds have also contributed to the development of potential soil health assessment tools to help make soil health testing readily available and affordable to farmers and ranchers. Multiple CIG projects are helping quantify the economic benefits of soil health management systems.

Finally, NRCS has begun developing a national soil health monitoring network that will leverage our soil survey infrastructure to provide national- and regional-scale insights into changing soil properties as producers expand their use of soil health management systems on their operations. As we gain greater insights into the positive impacts these systems generate across different soils, climates, and cropping systems, we can work with our partners to provide even better conservation planning assistance for producers.

These are just a few highlights of the NRCS Soil Health campaign, flowing from the contributions of hundreds of farmers, scientists, and conservationists across the country. I am proud of what my colleagues at NRCS have contributed to this growing focus on soil health, and am confident that this effort will have far-reaching impacts as we work together to improve the health of our nation's living and life-giving soil.

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