GroundTruth Blog

Soil-building success stories!

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by Margaret Reeves

The adage "we are what we eat" supports  food and nutrition education programs across the country. The same goes for the farm — production of an abundant diversity of healthy crops depends on healthy soil and crop management techniques.

Farmers aren't born knowing how to do this, they learn. They learn from each other, and through programs like USDA's new soil health initiative. This is why we're working hard to make sure the next Farm Bill is a strong one that supports innovative farmer education.

There will be a Farm Bill, we’re just not sure exactly how soon. While it's possible that we may find ourselves needing to gear up to oppose a really bad bill, we're hopeful that won’t happen. So we continue to press for what we want and need in the Farm Bill — including good educational programs and resources.

Farmers teaching farmers

USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) programs on soil health and cover cropping offer a wealth of educational materials to help farmers adopt best practices. And the new soil health initiative mentioned above has farmers learning from each other, with instructional videos to share methods and success stories. In my humble soil scientist opinion, this is a very cool online resource.

Stories include:

  • A farm in Ohio where a no-till system lost 70 times less water to runoff than the conventionally tilled system. This can mean life or death for the crop, especially in huge areas across the country plagued by severe drought.
  • A Maryland farm that reduced nitrogen fertilizer requirements by 100 pounds per acre by using a cover crop mix of cereal rye and hairy vetch in no-till corn. The system also conserved summer soil moisture to the benefit of subsequent cash crops.
  • A North Carolina State University project discovered that roll-killing a common legume cover crop (hairy vetch) provided more nitrogen to the subsequent crop than all other combinations of legumes and kill methods, including use of herbicides.

Other excellent SARE resources include two one-of-a-kind guidebooks that have long served as indispensable reading: Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably.

Since 2000, SARE has put nearly 60,000 copies of these in-depth books into the hands of farmers, ranchers, researchers and educators, who use them to get practical, step-by-step guidance on the many practices that contribute to good soil health. Thousands more have been downloaded for free.

Long history of farmer education

USDA has been educating farmers for a long time. In fact, USDA set up shop in 1862, as did the national land-grant system for teaching agriculture. Today USDA continues as a leader in state-of-the-art applied research, helping make US agriculture productive, competitive, and protective of soil and water — without which there would be no agriculture at all.

So please, keep an eye on the Farm Bill debate as it unfolds. And be ready to raise your voice in support of USDA on-farm research and education.

Margaret Reeves's blog

is PAN's Senior Scientist. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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