Soil health movement at a crossroads

Tom J. Bechman Barry Fisher assesses improvements in soil structure in a crop field
BETTER SOIL HEALTH: Barry Fisher with NRCS assesses improvements in soil structure after this field was no-tilled and planted to cover crops for only a few years.
Does the soil health concept have enough momentum to become the main way growers farm in the future?

If you haven’t heard the phrase “soil health,” perhaps you were living in a cocoon long before COVID-19 came along. The concept has become popular over the past few years. But where is the soil health movement going from here?

Part of the answer may lie in how you define soil health. Is it just no-tilling and adding cover crops? Or is it a whole different way of thinking about soil and the organisms that grow in it?

Barry Fisher, an Indiana native, spent the last five years as a regional soil health specialist on the national level for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He helped spread the idea that sustainability in agriculture begins with paying attention to soil health. He’s a firm believer that soil health is much more than no-till and cover crops.

In fact, Fisher believes that if you start with the concept that what happens inside the living soil is the key, you can build a farming system where soils are more resilient, take in more water during big rain events and have more moisture available during dry stretches.

Pivotal time

Looking just at Indiana, cover crop numbers have stalled at about a million acres per year. That means 90% of Indiana cropland doesn’t have anything growing on it right now. If you’re a true believer in soil health, you know soil “livestock” are healthier when there is activity and cover all year.

Why aren’t more farmers adopting practices that encourage soil health? Is it tradition? Is it economics? Is it a belief that any problems can be fixed by commercial fertilizer and lime?

Rick Clark, Warren County, Ind., is a farmer many people watch and follow. He moved from no-till to no-till and cover crops to planting green and crimping covers after planting. Now he is moving toward organic production. Everything he tries doesn’t work, and he is the first to acknowledge it. In fact, he pleads with people not to do what he does, especially if they’re not 100% committed. Sometimes failure is part of the learning process.

Do some people look at Clark and people like him and only see the failure? Perhaps. How many dig deeper to find the things these people do successfully that might work for them?

Fisher retired from NRCS after 2020. He still will share his enthusiasm and advice with those who want to learn more about making soil health the foundation of their operation, perhaps as a consultant. Here’s hoping NRCS replaces him. Currently, there are several openings for similar positions in the Soil Health Division of NRCS, formed in 2014.

If soil health is going to become the standard for farming in coming decades, it needs vibrant, enthusiastic people who see its potential and know where the pitfalls lie to help others move into the system. It needs farmers who are willing to share what they learn, and who genuinely want others to succeed. It needs government leaders who understand how improved soil health could tie into a better environment and help address climate change.

Most of all, it needs each farmer to take a closer look and give it a chance. Evaluate the idea of soil health on its merits and decide for yourself if it should be part of your farming operation in the future.

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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