The Soil Health Institute unveiled its action plan on Thursday for advancing soil health in research, policy and on-farm practices.
The institute — created by the Oklahoma-based Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation — held an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to highlight the action plan and its purpose.
The 48-page blueprint for the institute includes five major themes: research, economics, communication and education, policy, and measurement, standards and assessment. Each of those areas has mission statements and multiple goals, plus a list of actionable steps to advance each goal.
Wayne Honeycutt, a former USDA soil scientist and current president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, said he was excited to roll out an action plan that would allow other groups looking to join the effort to understand some of the institute’s objectives. Honeycutt added that more partnerships and funds will be needed to ensure agricultural soils can sustain and increase production for a growing global population.
“Isn’t it worth it?” Honeycutt asked, “Because what we’re really talking about here is enhancing life.”
Honeycutt also cited the value to farmers of increasing organic matter in the soil. A 1% increase in organic carbon can increase the water-holding capacity of that soil by up to roughly 12,000 gallons per acre. This leads to tremendous benefits in keeping nutrients on the land and reducing problems with water runoff.
“It has become increasingly clear soil health represents one of those rare win-win situations where what is good for the farmers is good for the environment,” Honeycutt said.
One of the keys Honeycutt expected to see from the action plan was more research into the relationship between soil health and human health. “It’s largely untapped, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see what those connectivities can be,” Honeycutt said.
A concentrated agenda revolving around soil health can translate into helping a broad range of areas, from growing more food to helping farmers deal with more extreme weather to addressing significant environmental issues in agriculture, Honeycutt added.
“By focusing on soil health, it allows us to simultaneously address all of these challenges,” he said.
The Soil Health Institute started as a three-year project by Noble and the Farm Foundation but led to the creation of the institute in 2015 with a $20 million, 10-year investment from Noble, noted Bill Buckner, president and chief executive officer of the Noble Foundation. Buckner has been a driving force behind the institute’s development.
Keith Alverson, a farmer from Chester, South Dakota, serves on the board for the National Corn Growers Association, which also has its own Soil Health Partnership working with farmers in the field. Alverson said he and his farm family have embraced higher industry standards for nutrient management, including split and variable rate applications to limit potential loss of nutrients. His farm has worked to become an early adopter of precision technology.
Organic matter has increased about 1.5% on his farm, and modern corn hybrids combined with improved soil and higher water-holding capacity add up to 20 more bushels of production per acre, Alverson said.
Even with today’s modest corn prices, Alverson said, “It’s pretty significant income and revenue in addition to the nutrient-holding capacity and the mineralization capacity that we have.”
Alverson added that his farm has been working with cover crops, but he hasn’t quite found a good mix that works after taking off the corn crop. Alverson indicated he plans to keep searching for the right mix. “We as farmers realized healthy soils are really the lifeblood to what we’ve got going on,” he said.
Joining leaders of the Soil Health Institute was Leonard Jordan, acting chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Jordan praised the effort and said NRCS was willing to collaborate as extensively as possible. He added, “I think there is definite alignment here and we are all in.”
Jordan tied the institute’s work into some current farm bill programs, such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) at USDA. That program has spent about $24 million over the past two years on 23 different projects focused solely on soil health, Jordan said. The funding has leveraged another $33 million in other, outside funding. “And we think that has been quite beneficial.”
Jerry Lynch, vice president and chief sustainability officer at General Mills, highlighted the industry tie-in to soil health as companies become increasing focused on explaining to consumers how food is grown. Soil health is a “sweet spot” in tying environmental improvement with food production. “Consumers will undoubtedly connect to more abundant food,” Lynch said.
Buckner said other companies are driving various soil-health and sustainability initiatives. Unilever, for instance, wants to add 30 million acres of cover crops over the goal of 20 million acres set by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.
Michael Doane, director of working lands for the Nature Conservancy, highlighted that even as far as soil health has come in recent years, much more can be gained. The soil can act as a sink with estimates of capturing roughly 25 million tons of carbon a year. At the same time, only roughly about 10% of U.S. cropland is managed in a way that helps sequester carbon in the soil, thus building organic matter.
One of the goals of the Soil Health Institute action plan is an eventual soil health assessment, Honeycutt said. This will help better identify areas of the country where early investment can achieve the best benefits. Such an assessment would also establish a baseline of where additional efforts can help establish goals for farmers and society overall.
Honeycutt pointed to another goal of calibrating the various soil testing protocols by establishing some metrics and helping labs promote standards. “There is so much variability in the testing out there that I think this is an ability to bring all of this together,” he said.
Alverson said he liked the prospect of establishing clear measurements for the soils and practices to improve the soil. “From the farm perspective, one thing we’ve always said is if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Alverson said.