Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

Turning again to the next farm bill, I want to focus on soil health. We need to be asking, “Do we need to change agricultural policy or research emphasis or programs to address soil health more effectively?”

Up to now, the notion of unlocking the “secrets of the soil” has been more of a media campaign at NRCS than a coordinated effort to identify additional potential components of soil health. Yes, there are commonly agreed upon strategies for improving soil health: rotating crops, planting cover crops, adopting no till, mulching, managing nutrients and pests. We know that these practices can save energy, provide more water for crops and reduce runoff and erosion. All good things. Yet these critical environmental strategies must also economically sustainable in order to be successful.

I fully support NRCS in its assessment that “Improving soil health is key to long-term, sustainable agricultural production.” My contention for several years has been that the optimal strategy for increasing production while protecting the environment is sustainable intensification. Rather than bringing marginal lands into production we must boost yields on our most productive land. To do that we need to find every possible way to reverse soil degradation and enhance soil health.

To begin with, I think there’s more to be discovered about soil health and thus more we can do to improve it. We need to pull together policy, science and agronomics to dig deeper and get a more complete picture of the soil. That’s an effort that will involve the public and private sectors and multiple agencies in a concerted approach to move our current knowledge base and our recommended practices forward, and I am pleased to support the newly-launched Soil Health Institute in their efforts in this arena.

First off, there is a tremendous need for a well thought out research program. We’ve got to move beyond chemical testing for soil. There’s more involved in soil health than the nutrients we’ve been testing for. We must identify additional factors in soil health and develop a modern regimen of tests that’s reasonably inexpensive to help farmers determine what their soils are missing. I’m convinced that not everything that’s beneficial in our soil is currently accounted for in our tests. We need a more robust measuring tool for soil health.

And what about technologies, tillage, animal manures, composts, soil amendments, biologics and polymers? Which of these really work and which add little or nothing to soil health? Which tools are optimized under different climatic, rainfall and management practices?  What are the economics of soil health? Which tools and techniques offer the greatest return on investment?

Some say there is a direct link between healthy soils and healthy foods. Is there a scientific correlation between the health of the soil and the nutritional quality of the food it produces? I’m skeptical, but we need to conduct the research to find out if this is the case or not.

This is some of the research I’d like to see as we move forward in considering research priorities under the 2018 Farm Bill. But there are also questions we need to ask about programs. Some of those may be resolved this summer as NRCS offers its improvements for the Conservation Stewardship Program with some of the enhancements hopefully supporting soil health. However, it is clear to me that EQIP practice standards and CSP enhancements need to reflect modern production agriculture practices that can improve soil health.  

Since soil health is multi-dimensional, we must ensure that in enhancing one aspect of the soil, we do not hurt another. Just like the physician’s mantra, we must first do no harm. We can’t solve for one problem and end up creating another. We need research in these areas as well so that we balance and coordinate various conservation practices for optimal soil health.

Of course, with all our discussions of soil health policy, programs and research, we need to keep in mind the most important precept that dates back to the earliest days of agricultural conservation—keeping the soil on the land.

Soil health is critical to producing the highest sustainable yields possible—the yields we will need as the global population expands to 9 billion in less than 35 years. It’s time to look closely at the policies, research and programs that can help farmers help the land for the benefit of everyone.

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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