The idea was to discover ways to put best management practices for building healthy soils front and center with Nebraska farmers and ranchers and the ag industry in the state. Nebraska state Sen. Tim Gragert, R-Creighton, introduced and prioritized LB243 during the 2019 legislative session.
The bill, which passed by a 43-0 vote, was signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts in April 2019. The law established a Healthy Soils Task Force, charged with developing a comprehensive report on methods to incorporate healthy soil stewardship practices into working agricultural operations.
Ricketts appointed 15 members to HSTF, representing the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska’s natural resources districts, production agriculture, agribusiness, academia and environmental organizations.
Keith Berns, Bladen, was selected to chair the group. Gragert and state Sen. Julie Slama, R-Peru, were nonvoting members. The mission statement of the group was “to develop a positive, proactive plan for soil health to ensure an enriched, resilient and sustainable future for the state of Nebraska.”
5 main goals
The first meeting of HSTF took place Aug. 14, 2019, with the main goal to develop a report that would be delivered to Ricketts and the Nebraska Legislature Agriculture Committee by Dec. 31, 2020.
After scores of input sessions from numerous agriculture and environmental groups, hours of investigating what other states are doing to coordinate soil health initiatives and developing several report drafts, HSTF met most recently in December to finalize and approve that report, which the group titled “Soil Health for Nebraska Wealth.”
The 46-page report was approved by the group by an 11-2 vote. From the report, HSTF proposed five main goals to accomplish a comprehensive soil health initiative in the state. Those goals include:
- Establish a Nebraska state soil health hub with regional proving grounds.
- Form a statewide Nebraska producer learning community.
- Develop the next generation of soil health practitioners.
- Recruit $50 million in additional soil health funding and incentives over the next 10 years.
- Create Nebraska soil health benchmarks and measurements of success.
Gragert praised HSTF in developing the final report. “It was a hardworking group, and I was pleased with how they went about it,” he says. “I think they contacted at least 30 agriculture and nonagriculture government agencies and other organizations and took all of that input.
“The group also took it upon themselves to contact individual states across the nation to investigate what other states were doing to promote healthy soils, and I believe they were able to cherry-pick the best ideas from those contacts.”
Although Gragert and Slama were nonvoting members, the effort has been quite personal for Gragert as the original sponsor of the bill.
“I really believe that after all of the work, the task force developed a final report that is exceptional,” he says. “The recommendations of the report do not include asking for funding at this time, and they focus entirely on incentivizing producers to adopt conservation practices, instead of mandating them.”
One graphic in the report strongly acknowledges advantages to building healthy soils, including improved yield stability and greater financial return for producers — as well as better soil structure, increased infiltration, better water storage and less runoff. Ultimately, healthy soils protect agriculture’s economic engine and protect the environment for future generations, the graphic states.
Gragert feels the report offers a road map that could put Nebraska in the leadership role nationally on healthy soils. “These recommendations are a win-win-win scenario,” he notes. “They are a win for producers, a win for consumers and a win for the environment. As our soils get healthier, they become more resilient against both flooding and drought.”
Because soil health has such a far-reaching effect on all Nebraskans, the group was cognizant of both rural and urban interests during the discussions, Gragert says.
“It was just invaluable having all of the input from other groups,” says Berns, HSTF chair. “We also made a ton of contacts and raised awareness about the opportunities for the state. It was gratifying to see the broad spectrum of support, not only from the agriculture groups, but also support from other components.”
Agribusinesses, private industry, urban and rural interests, environmental groups, government conservation agencies, and agriculture organizations all had input during the process, Berns notes.
Tons of input
Earlier drafts of the report were amended with input from numerous groups, adding depth through analysis of livestock and the positive role it can play in healthy soils, as well as building in economic models and real-life experiences, strengthening the final report, Berns says.
“We are realistic about the next steps. Most of the successful efforts in other states are more grassroots, producer-led efforts,” Berns notes, with support from agriculture agencies and organizations, as well as environmental and consumer groups, agribusinesses and private industry.
“With deep involvement from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, our state’s NRDs and the University of Nebraska and other institutions, we hope to forge partnerships and a grassroots healthy soils hub that is its own entity, that focuses solely on soil health across all boundaries.”
For his part as a follow-up, Gragert will introduce a resolution asking the Legislature at the very minimum to acknowledge the work of HSTF and recognize that Nebraska has the opportunity through the goals and recommendations proposed in the report to become a healthy soils leader in the nation.
“I just don’t want the report to get shelved,” Gragert says. “I hope there is interest in following up, and I hope several agencies and partners jump on board.”
Read the final HSTF report online, learn more about the work of the group, who its members were and read minutes from each of their meetings by visiting nda.nebraska.gov.