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Profitable conservation systems do not look the same on every farm. Growers must implement different strategies to address their specific needs, thanks to a wide range of variables including soil type, moisture availability, equipment and labor. However, just because every farmer takes a slightly different approach to soil health, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some consistent success factors that we should consider.

In our recent report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line (developed in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund and the agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom) we discovered that farmers who felt their soil health practices were making a difference – both in the data and anecdotally – took some similar approaches. These three “ingredients for success” increased their chances for achieving profitable conservation systems.

Ingredient #1 – Set clear goals for your conservation system

When deciding which approach to take, how to tailor a practice and evaluating success, the farmers in our study benefited from having clearly defined goals. For many of them, these goals fell into two broad categories:

  • Improving soil structure to help with erosion control and water holding capacity
  • Reducing hours on the tractor to save time, machinery and overhead costs

Each farmer reached these goals in their own unique way and all saw positive outcomes as a result of clearly knowing the direction they wanted to head.

Ingredient #2 – Identify areas to go all-in and where to experiment

It is important to recognize that there are different financial dynamics at play when comparing conservation approaches. Those dynamics should be considered when deciding how to implement a practice, based on your financial goals and comfort levels. In our study, we found that most farmers:

  • Made a wholesale shift to conservation tillage with associated equipment updates, knowing they could achieve short-term cost savings
  • Took a stepwise approach to cover crops, experimenting with seed varieties and seeding methods, knowing that the cost savings and soil health benefits with cover crops can take longer to achieve

While it would be great to see a quicker shift to cover crops – in the same way that we see with tillage practices – we found that, as long as expectations are clearly set up front and in alignment with long-term goals, farmers are more comfortable taking the time to “get it right.”

Ingredient #3 – Determine your priorities

Since most farmers face time and practicality constraints in adopting conservation practices on all acres, farmers in our study were most successful when they targeted specific fields or prioritized the biggest challenges needing to be solved. Examples of this include:

  • Using cover crops in fields with swales to retain soil during heavy rain events
  • Changing conservation practices based on crop rotation
  • Choosing to cover crop owned or long-term contracted ground over land with higher rent

Although farmers differed in the tactics used for tailoring their conservation system, they all identified the highest-priority ways to test, adopt and scale their soil health approach.

Digging In

Success looks different for every grower, but by setting clear goals, identifying where it’s safe to go all-in versus where you might need to experiment and prioritizing your approaches, the likelihood that you will find value in your soil health strategy will increase exponentially. To learn more about our work in Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, visit soilhealthpartnership.org/farmfinance.