A Hub of Soil Health Activity

How Indiana is using cover cropping and early adopters as 'gateways' into a deeper understanding of sustainable soil management.

It’s an overcast August morning in northeastern Indiana, and in a massive machine shed well stocked with the tools of a modern row crop operation, some 60 farmers are being reminded that growing corn and soybeans is about more than iron, oil and chemistry. The reminder comes in the form of a question from Dan DeSutter, who raises corn and soybeans in the west-central part of the state.

“How many of you raise crops with no livestock?”

The majority of hands in the room shoot up.

“So you say,” responds DeSutter. “We’re all livestock farmers when it comes to soil biology.”

He is a key component in an integrated approach to saturate Indiana farmers with a simple, and yet in some ways radical notion: your soil is alive and all those microbes need to be fed with living roots and biomass 365-days-a-year, or it will starve, producing fields that are too sick to resist wind and water erosion, prone to drought and eventually unable to produce decent yields even when receiving heavy applications of petroleum based fertilizers.

DeSutter is one of a dozen “Hub Farmers” around which one of the most innovative soil health initiatives in the country revolves. Over the past seven years, the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative (CCSI) has spread the gospel throughout the Hoosier State that soil health is integral to the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture. The clearest evidence that CCSI’s message is hitting home is the amount of Indiana farmland planted to soil-friendly cover crops in just a few short years. According to transect surveys, by fall 2015 around one million acres of land in the state was planted to small grains, brassicas or other non-cash crops as a way to protect (and feed) the soil before and after the regular corn-soybean growing season.

A decade ago, around 20,000 acres of Indiana’s farmland was cover-cropped, and as recently as 2013, that figure was roughly half-a-million acres. One million acres represents about 8 percent of Indiana’s total crop acres, and is more than double the percentage of cover crops found in any other Corn Belt state. That’s exciting: cover crops have shown they allow fields to make better use of precipitation and build organic matter, producing resilient soils that reduce dramatically the amount of fertilizer runoff and sediment sent into our water. Research is also starting to show that cover cropping can increase yields in corn and soybeans, particularly during years when excessively dry or wet weather predominates. Farmers utilizing no-till production also find cover crops reduce the “yield drag” that comes with converting from a tillage-based system.

Despite the multiple benefits produced by cover cropping, overall U.S. farmers have been reticent to adopt it on a widespread basis, citing everything from narrow planting windows and ignorance around how to handle the crops to lack of seed and equipment. One estimate is only around 2 percent to 3 percent of U.S. cropland is regularly cover cropped. That’s a concern—although cover crops are only a single tool in the soil health toolbox, they are considered a key “gateway practice” into a more holistic approach to managing soil biologically. Cover the land all year-round, and other ecologically-based arts will follow.

That’s why Indiana’s success with getting so many acres planted to continuous living cover in a relatively short amount of time is seen as a national model for replacing the philosophy of treating soil as simply a stand for holding up a plant, rather than as a living entity. As a sign of its potential to influence conservation on a national scale, Barry Fisher, who helped coordinate CCSI from its inception, was recently promoted to be the Central Region Leader for the Soil Health Division of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), where he coordinates a soil health technical exchange for conservationists, farmers and partners throughout the Corn Belt and Northern Plains.

The arrival of the CCSI model onto the national farm conservation stage offers an opportunity to examine how exactly the initiative has succeeded in getting so many farmers to take a key step away from simply “feeding the plant” and toward “feeding the soil.” At the core of the initiative are the Hubs, which are basically multidisciplinary teams spread across the Hoosier State. These Hubs are made up of local and state government conservationists, Purdue University extension educators, soil scientists, agronomists, and, just as importantly, representatives of agribusiness firms: implement and seed dealers, crop services providers and crop advisers. A previous Land Stewardship Project blog examined the role partnerships with agribusinesses play in helping farmers act on new information they are gleaning from the exploding field of soil health science. But the key members of these Soil Health Hubs are farmers like DeSutter. They serve as models of what soil health can look like on the ground, as well as a reality check that improving soil biology isn’t about throwing some rye seed on the ground—it’s ultimately an integrated approach that can drive how decision-making is done on a farm.

The Farmer Next Door

As a soil health specialist for the NRCS, Fisher is well aware of the importance of building soil biology. However, it’s become evident in recent years that even when individual farmers acknowledge that fact, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the information out there. Plus, much of the information on practices such as cover cropping is from parts of the country with different climate conditions, soils and crop mixes. North Dakota’s Burleigh County, for example, has become the center of the soil health universe, with farmers like Gabe Brown becoming YouTube and lecture circuit stars talking about how they raise organic matter utilizing a combination of no-till, cover cropping and mob grazing. But the growing conditions in North Dakota are dramatically different from what’s found in a state like Indiana.

“Presenting all the data in the world does no good unless a farmer you respect is sharing his own experience,” says Fisher.

That’s why when CCSI was created in 2009, one of the first things Fisher and the other organizers did was recruit farmers who had a particular interest in soil health and kept good records they were willing to share. These farmers had to agree to host field days and travel to events to talk about their own experiences. CCSI trained them in presentation skills and pays a stipend to cover transportation costs and other expenses. There are also “affiliate” farms that host field days, further helping tell the story.

The added component to the Hub concept is that member-farms are involved in an ongoing study where information is being collected from their operations on economics, fertilizer use, yields, and, of course, the health of their soil. Beyond that, CCSI is collecting information from affiliate farms, as well as research farms operated by Purdue University and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

The Hub Farmers represent a wide range of acreage, methods and growing conditions. DeSutter farms 5,000 acres near the Illinois border, so he has many of the conditions found throughout the middle of the Corn Belt. Michael Werling, on the other hand, raises 320 acres of corn and soybeans, as well as oats for the local Amish market, on the opposite side of the state near Ohio, putting him in the eastern Corn Belt.

But no matter where they are located, the Hub Farmers share a similar passion for improving soil health. To stay connected they usually meet face-to-face for two days every year. The first day is just the farmers; the second soil experts and agency people are invited to join the discussion.

“Somebody starts a topic and it goes onto something else, then those ideas go out to the wider world and other farmers,” says Werling. “I love that.”

The Hub network can serve as a sounding board for proposals that might seem a little “out there” for the conventional ag community, a not-ready-for-prime-time safe place for ideas generation, according to Werling. One topic Hub Farmers are discussing these days is the idea of seeding cover crops at the same time that nitrogen fertilizer is applied as a side dress during the growing season.

Werling, who has been using a combination of cover cropping and no-till (he calls it “never-till”) so successfully the past several years that he has actually changed the soil type on some of his more marginal fields, acknowledges that he is more fixated on the biology beneath his feet than the average Indiana farmer. That’s why he appreciates the chance to throw new ideas around amongst a group of people who are as committed to soil health as he is.

Like a support group?

“That’s a good way to put it,” Werling says with a laugh.

Agents of Change

In some ways, the Hub concept is similar to how farm innovations have been germinated and broadcast in farm country for generations. A famous 1941 study conducted in Greene County in central Iowa traced the adoption of hybrid seed corn during the 1930s. On the face of it, the adoption of this new technology appeared to be a relatively overnight success—in 1927 it was considered an experimental product not seen outside of college research plots; a decade later it was almost universally planted by Iowa farmers. But through extensive interviews, rural sociologists discovered that the majority of farmers did not accept the innovation immediately, but rather “…delayed acceptance for a considerable time after initial contact with innovation.”

Awareness of an innovation does not always result in immediate adoption—many Iowa farmers who put off planting hybrid seed for years were first made aware of its existence at the same time as their early-adopting neighbors. Although the widespread acceptance of hybrid seed corn over a few year’s time is impressive, it’s striking that some farmers did not adopt it until a full 10 years after their innovative neighbors.

It turns out these early adopters served a key role: they were willing to jump in feet first and test this innovation on their own land almost as soon as they heard about it, and they shared the results with their neighbors in a kind of community laboratory setting. Seed salesman may have been “introductory mechanisms” for hybrid seed, but early adopting farmers were the “activating agents,” according to the researchers.

Another important lesson from Greene County is that even after hybrid seed had proven itself on a neighbor’s farm, later adopters insisted on experimenting with it personally on just a few acres before making a full conversion.

CCSI’s Hub Farmers are early adopters: people who are trying something new because of a love of innovation and personal goals they’ve set for their operations. But they don’t necessarily have a vested interest in seeing their neighbors make a conversion.

“I talk about what I do as a farmer,” says Werling of his presentations at workshops and field days. “I don’t sell seed. I don’t sell fertilizer. I don’t work for the government. I think that’s an advantage.”

Werling’s passion for soil health is palpable, and one can’t help but catch his excitement when he talks about using crop rotations, no-till and cover cropping to make even his poorest fields productive.

But passion about the soil universe isn’t enough, and he knows it. If the majority of Indiana’s farmland is going to be planted in continuous living cover, CCSI needs to reach the bigger farmers out there. At one recent field day the farmers present represented control of some 300,000 acres, according to an impromptu survey. When the co-op agronomists and crop advisers attending were included, a total of 600,000 acres was represented.

“I don’t know if they understand the soil health so much,” says Werling of some of the larger farmers. “But there is a lot of excitement over cover crops.”

Those bigger operators may not be watching YouTube videos on mycorrhizae fungi, but we all have to start somewhere, says Fisher. A farmer starts seeing that a cover cropped field requires less nitrogen or yields well in droughty conditions, and then maybe later takes other steps to avoid doing the kind of damage that impedes soil health. What CCSI is doing is not only supporting the early adopters out there, but providing an infrastructure for those later adopters who are being activated by those early examples and want to start experimenting on their own farms. Technical expertise, connections with agribusinesses that can provide the seeds, equipment and even planting services for cover cropping, on-farm monitoring, cost-share funds to get started on a small scale—these are all offered through the CCSI Hub system.

Ryan Stockwell, a senior agriculture program manager for the National Wildlife Federation who has been involved in soil health trainings in Indiana, says that larger acreage farmers showing up at field days is a sign that CCSI’s “saturation coverage”—it puts on around 60 fields days annually—is starting to change the culture.

“What the Hub Farmers do by bombarding farmers from every angle is make it impossible for them to ignore the message,” he says. “The late to middle adopters are being reached.”

Unearthing Economics

Maybe those later adopters are being reached, but as Greene County’s hybrid corn example shows, awareness does not guarantee full adoption. Fisher says the majority of farmers agree a practice like cover cropping makes conservation sense, but it also has to pencil out financially. That’s why the Hub Farmers were chosen not only for innovative attitudes toward soil management, but also for their ability to track financials and willingness to talk about them.

Dan DeSutter, the west-central Indiana farmer, fits the role perfectly. A former financial analyst and commodity broker, he knows how to track trends, talk numbers and sniff out inefficiencies.

One day while standing in a trench fixing a tile drainage line, DeSutter noticed that roots from the rye cover crop a Purdue University researcher was studying on his family’s farm were boring at least four feet deep into the soil. Such “bio-drilling” was impressive, given that over the years the DeSutters had been putting a lot of effort into using a ripper to break up compaction.

“That was my aha moment,” recalls DeSutter. “We were spending all this money on ripping when for a few dollars per acre worth of seed, this plant would be doing it for us. You tell me what’s going to do it better: the plant or the seed?”

To DeSutter, that was the “physical” economic argument for building soil health. As he has gotten deeper into cover cropping and talked to other leaders in the field (he traveled to Australia recently as an Eisenhower Fellow to study soil health building techniques there) DeSutter has also been convinced about the “biological” benefits. Namely, the conventional system of growing corn or soybeans, which covers the land only a few months out of the year with living plants, is actually very inefficient at utilizing all the free sunlight above ground and biological activity below ground.

DeSutter provided a mini-soil economics lesson recently while giving a presentation at a CCSI field day at a cropping operation in northeastern Indiana. During the presentation, he explained to the gathered farmers that over the past two decades he has doubled his organic matter to 4 percent on many of his acres. DeSutter then went into a simple calculation showing that the nitrogen he is gaining from this increased organic matter is basically a source of fertility he doesn’t have to purchase.

“That’s like a $40 per acre annuity that keeps paying us,” he said at one point.

DeSutter also pointed out that 1 percent of organic matter in the top 12 inches of the soil profile is worth an inch of water storage. “How much is a two-inch rain worth in August?” DeSutter asked the farmers rhetorically, following up with an answer in the form of more math: “Let’s say it’s worth 20 bushels extra per acre. With corn going for $4, that’s $80 per acre added value. That’s resilience.”

At another CCSI meeting, central Indiana farmer Jack Maloney talked about how since he started using cover cropping and no-till together, his inputs of nitrogen fertilizer have gone down, but yields have continued to increase. He finds cover crops provide fertility to his fields at a more consistent level throughout the growing season—he compared it to a steady sine wave. Applying petroleum-based fertilizer, on the other hand, provides roller coaster-like peaks and valleys, which don’t always match when the crop needs nutrients most. This kind of talk gets a farmer’s attention, particularly at a time when corn and soybean prices are in a slump.

Such financial lessons may be directed at conventional farmers, but they may be packaged in a way that isn’t recognizable to producers who automatically equate the highest yields with the highest profits. One of the biggest differences between early adopters like Michael Werling and Dan DeSutter and the next wave of farmers who are interested in improving soil health is the role yields play in their decision making. Werling makes it clear that he does not make a direct connection between high yields and profitability—if he has few bushels per acre less come fall, that’s more than made up for by the fact that he spent less money on inputs as a result of good soil health. DeSutter takes a similar holistic view.

“I think there’s way too much focus on per acre yield, and not enough on profit,” he says during an interview. “As a finance guy I look at what do I need to do to make a profit in the long term, to gain a long-term advantage. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

However, the bushels-per-acre trap is a hard one to escape. During a series of tours last August, more than one farmer expressed the goal of getting record-breaking yields while using cover crops.

“We’ve got to get back to science, fellas, if we’re going to get to 300-bushel corn,” said an Indiana farmer at one point during a CCSI presentation.

New Lease on Life

It’s become evident in recent years that another critical demographic to reach with a soil health message is non-farming owners of agricultural lands. The fact is farmers are increasingly raising crops on land that’s not their own: in Indiana, 60 percent of farmland is rented, and more than half the crops in Minnesota and Iowa are produced on leased land. Farmers who rent land on a cash basis from year-to-year often don’t have an economic incentive to put in long-term practices that build soil health. But if non-farming landowners knew how much long-term value vibrant soil biology added to their property, they would be more than happy to seek out farmers who are utilizing good conservation, argues DeSutter.

The 2015 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll of 1,159 farmers found that just 22 percent believed landlords have a good understanding of soil health, and only 28 percent felt landlords know what farming practices can improve soil health.

DeSutter sees huge potential in this area. He says in some ways non-farming landlords are an easier audience for the soil health message, since they aren’t always so invested financially and emotionally in doing things the same as they’ve always been done. Landowners have sought out DeSutter because of his reputation for taking care of the soil. If more landowners saw the value of building soil biology, a farmer who, for example, combines cover cropping and no-till would have a competitive edge as far as getting access to rental land.

“Why wouldn’t landlords want a renter who isn’t mining their soil?” DeSutter asks.

That’s why Fisher was thrilled after one recent CCSI workshop when he took a look at the registration list and realized several landlords were present. “They will be part of this decision making as well,” he says.

A Conservation Ethic

One thing that can get lost in all this talk about making soil health pay economically is that for many early adopters the main motivation is care of the land itself. The 2015 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll showed that “stewardship ethics” was the most influential factor in farmers’ decisions to change how they manage their soil—48 percent said it was a strong or very strong influence, with economics, at 43 percent, a close second.

And the agro-environmental stakes have been raised. There has been a flood of water quality problems associated with runoff from farmland in recent years. The “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico has long been linked to excessive fertilizer leaving Midwestern farm fields. In addition, algal blooms in Lake Erie during 2014 contaminated the water for 400,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio, area, forcing a shutdown of the city’s drinking water system for three days. The agriculture community is awaiting with trepidation the results of a case in which the Des Moines Waterworks has sued three northwestern Iowa counties, claiming drainage districts there act as conduits for nitrates to move from farm fields into the Raccoon River, a major source of water for 500,000 residents in the city (that case is slated to be heard by a federal judge in August).

Michael Werling, the northeastern Indiana farmer, is acutely aware of the impact his farming activities have on the environment. He farms along the St. Mary’s River, which is one of biggest contributors of phosphorus to Lake Erie.

“I’ve been to Toledo Bay,” he says. “I’m often the only farmer on those tours. It makes you aware of the algal bloom.”

During a series of CCSI field days last summer, the often contentious relationship between production agriculture and water quality hung over the proceedings like a dark cloud. Numerous speakers—whether they be farmers, scientists or soil experts—made the point that building soil health is one way to be proactive on the issue of protecting the environment and perhaps dodging the inevitable hammer of stricter regulation and/or lawsuits.

“I hear you have a million acres of cover crops in this state, and you did that without someone putting a gun to your head,” said University of Maryland soil scientist Ray Weil as an opening to his presentation at a restaurant in southwestern Indiana.

Maybe Indiana farmers don’t have a gun to their head, but many conceded they felt some sort of regulation of farming practices to protect water quality is inevitable. Watersheds that supply drinking water for the Indianapolis metro area are contaminated with agrichemicals such as the corn herbicide atrazine.

“They want someone to pay for it,” says hydrologist Robert Barr, referring to Indianapolis officials. Not surprisingly, farmers are working with Barr to show how building soil health can reduce runoff.

An argument could be made for the short-term effectiveness of a top-down approach to cleaning up water when one considers the example of Maryland, where agricultural runoff has decimated fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay. It was determined several years ago that cover crops were the cheapest, most efficient way to capture nutrients before they made it to the water. So state officials there instituted a “Flush Tax”—basically a fee all residents hooked up to public water works systems pay. Revenue from that tax is used to pay farmers outright to plant cover crops, usually in the form of a single species such as rye. Maryland farmers can receive as much as $90 per acre to plant a cover crop, with other economic incentives added on for planting it earlier, etc. Maryland farmers have an added incentive to plant cover crops because the state requires nutrient management plans for any producer who generates more than $2,500 in annual sales.

The result? Around half of Maryland’s one millions acres of cropland is now regularly cover-cropped and nutrient runoff has been reduced. On the face of it, the program has been a resounding success

But Weil, an internationally known soil ecologist who has worked with farmers in numerous states, is concerned that most Maryland farmers are narrowly focused on the minimum they can do to adhere to regulations and ways they can qualify for cover crop payments. He prefers what he calls the “rock star farmer” model, where leaders in soil health are driving innovation within their communities.

“The conversation is different in my state, which I think is sad,” the scientist says. “At farmer meetings in Maryland, farmers talk about how they can qualify for higher payments—they don’t talk about how they can improve their systems and build soil health.”

When such a reductionist view boils soil health down to planting a minimum amount of a single cover crop, it becomes easy to drop that practice once it doesn’t pay or it otherwise becomes too big a hassle. The key is for soil health to become the driver of all other farming decisions, rather than one side effect of a few isolated practices.

For example, DeSutter has added wheat to his corn-soybean rotation. The small grain long ago fell out of favor in much of the Corn Belt, but since it’s harvested earlier than row crops, having it in the rotation gives DeSutter an opportunity to get cover crops planted earlier, providing a jumpstart on winter. Building soil health has to be put on the same level as other farming practices if it’s going to weather mercurial markets, shifts in farm policy or the desire to return to old habits, according to DeSutter.

“It’s all about priorities.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.This is the second of two blogs on Indiana's Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative. To read the first installment, click here.