Lost Horizons & the Need for Healthy Soil

Recent news out of Farm Country highlights how imperative it is that a Land Stewardship Project bill working its way through the Minnesota Legislature lands on the Governor’s desk in 2021. First, the USDA predict U.S. farmers will plant 92 million acres of corn and 90 million acres of soybeans this spring, which could break records. Minnesota ranks fourth in corn production and third in soybeans, so expect to see more of the state’s land blanketed in these two crops come summer. Another piece of news is that a third of the farmland in the Corn Belt — that’s some 100 million acres — has lost its carbon-rich soil to erosion.

Some hillsides have lost their entire “A-horizon” — the dark part of the profile we know as "topsoil." When you drive by a field that has lighter soil at the top of a ridge than lower down, that means the A-horizon is gone, and that’s where all the biological magic takes place when it comes to soil’s productivity. It's full of all the living microorganisms and decaying plant roots that create organic carbon. According to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this erosion has released nearly 1,500,000,000 metric tons of carbon, cut corn and soybean yields by 6%, and costs farmers $3 billion annually.

One other piece of recent soil-related news is what I would categorize as an eye witness account. In a striking blog posted Feb. 26 called “Moving Soil,” Land Stewardship Project farmer-member Jim VanDerPol presents a short video of soil blowing off neighboring fields onto his hayfield in west-central Minnesota. The scene is sickening. At one point in the video, he holds up a handful of rich, black, misplaced soil (see photo below). In places, there is so much eroded soil that it weighs down the bottom two strands of a four-strand high-tensile fence. You can't even tell there is snow beneath the muck.

VanDerPol writes: “The fields in the background are full season crop of sugar[beets] on one side, and dry bean production on the other. This is what ‘clean tillage’ does. I can also say with some certainty that if all the soil around was held in place by living roots as it was when we whites showed up here, there not only would be no soil on the fence, but much less snow as well. The snow would be held where it landed, benefiting that soil and the life it sponsors.”

Given all this, it’s hard to escape a rock-hard reality: during the 2021 Minnesota growing season, we will see higher erosion rates, dirtier water, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We will also see more farm fields decimated by the kind of extreme weather that guts profits and leaves farmers vulnerable to climate change.

Image

It doesn’t have to be this way. Farmers throughout Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest are utilizing regenerative practices like no-till, cover cropping, managed rotational grazing and diverse rotations to build back soil health and sequester carbon. In fact, recent scientific breakthroughs show that farmers have a much greater ability to send soil trends in a positive direction than once thought. I’ve been on Minnesota farms that have significantly increased soil organic matter in a matter of a few years. LSP's Soil Builders initiative is working with hundreds of farmers who are proving soil healthy practices can be practical and profitable.

But regenerative practices won’t become enough of a norm to have widespread landscape impacts without public support. For decades, government subsidies and tax-funded land grant research, along with market signals, have made raising corn and soybeans in an intensive, soil-damaging manner just about the only game in town. Stepping out of a monocultural, input-intensive system can bring significant financial risk. Converting to no-till and managing cover crops costs time and money. No wonder less than 15% of farmland in the upper Mississippi River watershed is managed using no-till methods, and under 3% of Minnesota crop ground is cover cropped any given year.

That’s why the 100% Soil Healthy Farming Bill’s timing is so critical. Authored by Rep. Todd Lippert and Sen. Kent Eken, it provides farmers with grants for the adoption of practices that build resiliency on the landscape. Studies and surveys show that once farmers have transitioned into a practice like cover cropping or no-till, they see higher yields, more profit and resilient soils. But it takes a couple of years to go from good idea to practical, everyday field method. Bridging the gap to ensure that regenerative methods are profitable in the near term removes financial barriers that often limit farmers’ ability to put in place long-term, creative, investments on the land.

The ultimate goal of the Soil Healthy legislation is to have 50% and 100% of Minnesota farmers implementing these practices by 2030 and 2035, respectively. Sound overly-optimistic? It should be noted that these goals were developed by LSP farmer-members from around the state, farmers who know firsthand that with the right incentives, regenerative practices can work here. The positive impacts on our water, soil and climate would be tremendous. All of us, from Wabasso to Wayzata, would benefit. We provide public support for wastewater treatment systems, so why not a public investment in resilient soil?

States like Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa have shown that public cost-share and grant programs can play a significant role in increasing the number of “soil smart” acres. They’ve committed to helping farmers bridge the innovation gap. It’s time we did the same here, before the other two-thirds of that all-important A-horizon ends up over the hill.

Land Stewardship Letter editor Brian DeVore is the author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.