In this final episode of The People of Soil Health podcast, host and SHP Senior Director John Mesko reflects on the legacy of Soil Health Partnership, the people who have made our work possible and how the organization’s impact will live on for many years to come.
As you may or may not have heard, Soil Health Partnership – a project of the National Corn Growers Association – will close its doors on May 28, 2021.
SHP has accomplished its original mission of determining the economic and environmental impact of conservation practices and communicating the importance of soil health to farmers and the agriculture community. In carrying out this mission, we developed best-in-class on-farm research protocols, farmer engagement strategies, and an elite suite of communications channels to tell the story, including webinars, blog posts, social media, podcasts and more. We’ve also released several key findings, including 2019 and 2020 cover crop planting reports, two published research papers, several important webinars and a study on the economic impact of conservation practices on farms.
Despite this good work, the empirical on-farm research SHP set about to conduct is expensive. Add to that our high level of farmer-facing support – with field staff covering 16 states and a bona fide research and data analysis staff – and the current cost of a program like SHP exceeds existing levels of support. As such, it’s time to sunset this project and move forward toward new and different approaches.
As partners and supporters of SHP have learned of this news, the overwhelming outreach from the community reflects the collaborative nature of SHP and the great partnerships developed along the way. It also reflects just how far we’ve come as an organization in the past few years.
The knowledge developed at SHP lives on through its staff, most of whom are taking their unique expertise and experience into various corners of the soil health and conservation worlds. Wherever they each land, I am confident they will apply the same professionalism, hope, and passion displayed at SHP – and, in the process, make even greater contributions.
The impact of SHP will also live on through our dataset, which will be shepherded by two current staff members in a partnership with the University of Minnesota GEMS Platform. Eventually, this invaluable data will be available to the community for further analysis and leveraged for even better tools for farmers. This transition of the data is funded by several key partners, who graciously stepped in to support us with short-term funding: The Walton Family Foundation, The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, The Nature Conservancy, General Mills and IndigoAg.
This has been a true partnership with the agriculture community. On behalf of the Soil Health Partnership team, thank you to all the farmers, sponsors, supporters and donors who contributed time, money, energy, and passion to this cause over the past seven years.
Trey Hill, who owns and operates Harborview Farms in partnership with his father, is no stranger to conservation agriculture.
“I’m a Midwestern farm trapped in Maryland, I would like to say. We till a little over 10,000 acres. We grow corn, soybeans, wheat, and some barley for malting purposes,” he explained on The People of Soil Health Podcast. “We’re 100% cover cropped. I like to say we’re 100% no-tilled, but we’re probably 99% or 99.5% no-till. We’re still doing a little bit of tillage on some headlands and what not.”
And, so, when “dumb luck” gave him the opportunity to experiment with carbon markets – someone he knew introduced him to the team at Nori – he jumped at the chance to capitalize on his efforts.
“I’m very positive on it,” Trey said. “I think it’s really good for agriculture. I think it gets us in a whole other conversation.”
One of those conversations included being interviewed recently for an article in The Washington Post – something he’s very proud of because it was positive coverage of how farmers are helping mitigate climate change.
“How hard is it for a farmer to get into the Washington Post with a positive story?” he said, still amazed himself. “If you have a good story to tell, you have to tell it.”
To learn more about Trey’s experience in carbon markets, cover cropping, no-till, and his partnership with SHP, tune in to episode 31 of The People of Soil Health podcast in the player above or in your favorite podcast app.
NOTE: The mission of SHP is to help farmers adopt soil health practices for environmental and economic benefits. SHP does not support or endorse any particular carbon market or program. Our goal with The People of Soil Health Podcast is to provide a space for dialogue around relevant topics related to soil health and conservation agriculture.
Angela Knuth’s journey to improved soil health began back in 2005 when she and her husband Kerry made the move to no-till on their Mead, Neb. farm. As third-generation farmers hoping to pass on what they’ve built to the fourth generation, Angela and Kerry are motivated by a desire to leave the land in the very best possible condition for their two sons.
“It is a goal for us to leave the boys with better soils than what we had, and it does take time,” Angela says. “We need to give them something that’s going to make them a living.”
With the switch to no-till, the Knuths found they saved money on tillage equipment and fuel. According to Angela, “We have been pleased to see no decrease in yield. We’re hoping to see that continued decrease in our cost of production and improvement in the soil tilth and microbe activity.”
That goal of improved soil biology is one of the things that led the Knuths to Soil Health Partnership and implementing an on-farm research trial.
“If you get your biology right in your soil, it’s going to pay you back three-fold,” said Angela. “It’s just a matter of, why not?”
As part of their SHP trial, they took steps to pinpoint which cover crops and seed mixes work for their farm in an effort to add greater diversity to their crop rotation, rather than going from just corn to beans and back again. Angela knows that once they can definitively answer their questions about cover crops, the crop diversification piece will be much less work, stress, and risk.
“We’re starting to see that, yeah, this is do-able,” Angela says. “With the diversity, there’s a little more confidence that the future is going to be there for [our sons].”
Ken Rosenow, alongside his family, is the sixth generation to operate his farm – continuing a legacy that started before the Civil War. While he’s proud of his farming history, Ken is also committed to evolving for the future. That’s one of the reasons why, in 2017, he joined SHP to further his cover crop efforts.
“I had always been really interested in conservation and I’ve always thought that cover crops were good. But it was really hard to tell […] if it was really economically sustainable,” Ken shared in this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast. “When I first talked to the Soil Health Partnership people, that seemed to me what the real basis of the program was: ‘We kind of think [cover crops are] pretty good, but we want to do some real testing and collect a lot of data to prove it and make sure what we know and think can be economically profitable for the farmer.’”
Ken learned from his father the importance of conservation and the pair transitioned to no-till by 1991. Today, he rotates corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay. Ken also incorporates a variety of cover crops (which he seeds through aerial application), including cereal rye, field peas, berseem clover, radishes and sunflowers.
To hear more about Ken’s soil health journey, why he chose to participate in the recent SHP report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, and the advice he offers to those just getting started with cover crops, listen to Episode 28 using the player above or by checking out The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.
Elyssa McFarland started out on the ground floor of the Soil Health Partnership. Initially coming in as an independent contractor, Elyssa quickly became an SHP field manager. She was part of rolling out the first trial sites in Iowa and watched the program expand into what it is today.
“[Soil Health Partnership] did have that kind of rapid growth and energy. I think that brought a lot of folks who have that passion for this work and a particular expertise that were looking to jump into a project that they could really put their foot on the gas and help it get to the next stage,” she shared. “And when I look across the field team, as well as the science team, we’ve got a lot of folks who have a lot of energy and expertise and it keeps us moving forward and adapting to the new things that are on our plate.”
Elyssa is now the Field Development Director at SHP. In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, she sits down with John Mesko to discuss where SHP has been, where the organization is now and where it is heading in the future.
“I think one of the things that I’m most excited about is being able to take this kind of machine, if you will, this group of people and infrastructure that we’ve built that works really effectively with farmers on the ground to collect information, to process it and make it available,” she said. “I think the sky’s the limit in terms of the ways that we can help farmers understand how these practices are affecting their farm, affecting their bottom line, their soils, all of these things.”
Tune in to the full episode of The People of Soil Health podcast – using the player above or subscribing in your favorite podcast player – to learn more.
Soil Health Partnership was born from a shared vision of developing a farmer-led research network that could measure the impacts of implementing soil health practices on working farms. Greg Whitmore of Shelby, Neb. was one of those leading farmers.
One of the original 14 SHP farmers, Greg believes in the soil health mission and has found his work within the partnership to be a fascinating and rewarding experience.
“I joined because I was using cover crops and no-till. I wanted to see if the economic and environmental gains and soil quality were real or just perceived,” he said. “Since joining, I have seen less wind and water erosion and better water infiltration and retention.”
In fact, Greg reports big changes during the heavy rains he sometimes gets on his Nebraska farm. Water infiltration has improved, and he reports getting by with less water because the rainfall he gets is preserved for his crops rather than washing away.
Building soil health requires farmers to take a long-term view of their farm management. Farmers can’t expect massive changes overnight, but Greg reports that when the benefits do begin to emerge, they multiply quickly.
“Improving soil health to me is important because I can sustain with less water, less applied nitrogen and we start recycling those nutrients better within the soil,” Greg says.
He believes it is important for farmers to pay attention to the work of the Soil Health Partnership, in order to learn from the experiences of their peers and build better farms for the future. He says it’s also important for non-farmers to take notice of the work SHP farmers are doing to improve the environment and sustain the land.
“[Farmers] are making efforts to improve our environment. Even with what I’ve accomplished so far, I can always do better.”
Soil Health Partnership Senior Director John Mesko provides an update on the organization’s efforts and the impact of our work.