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Case Studies Show Profitability and Environmental Benefits from Soil Health
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist
The American Farmland Trust (AFT), the organization behind the national movement, No Farms No Food, released four case studies that show that healthier soil on farmland brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to society. These case studies were developed in partnership with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). AFT Water Initiative Director Dr. Michelle Perez, the lead researcher on the project, says, “Increasingly, we understand that better soil health - and specific practices aimed at building soil organic matter, fostering microbial life in the soil, reducing nutrient loss, and protecting soil from erosion - lead to higher net income for farming operations. These case studies contribute to the growing body of quantitative evidence that improving soil health increases farmer profitability.”

The case studies focus on corn-soybean production in Illinois and Ohio, almond production in California and a diversified rotation (sweet corn, alfalfa, corn for silage or grain) in New York. The four farmers featured implemented soil health practices like no-till or strip-till, nutrient management, cover crops, compost, and mulching.

Perez says that with soil health management, producers can increase their yield, decrease their risk and input costs, and improve their profits, all while conserving our nation’s resources for the public at large, on their farms, in their watersheds, and beyond. She adds that soil health management systems are good for farmers and for the public.

Highlights from the case studies include:
• All four of the farmers profiled saw improved yields ranging from 2% to 22% that they attributed, in part, to their soil health practices. The average return on investment was 176% for the four farms in the study and ranged from 35% to 343%. The study accounted for other factors at play in increased yield such as improved seed varieties and increased seeding rates.
• All four farmers saw improved water quality outcomes, both by witnessing reduced soil and water runoff and as estimated by USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT). NTT estimated that nitrogen reductions ranged from 40% to 98%, phosphorus reductions ranged from 74% to 92%; and sediment reductions ranged from 76% to 96% from specific fields in each farm.
• All four farmers saw improved climate outcomes, as estimated by USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool. The tool estimated that total greenhouse gas emission reductions from specific fields in each farm ranged from 16% to 560%, corresponding to taking three-fourths of a car to 17 cars off the road.

Perez said, “We hope that farmers who have been considering adding soil health practices to their operation will be able to use these case studies to approach their existing landowners, from whom they rent their land, to discuss sharing the risks and rewards of the soil health investments.  We hope farmers will also share the case studies with their bankers to secure additional financing for the farm expansion.”

Perez adds that they hope their conservation partners at NRCS, SWCD and Extension, plus their partners in the private sector, crop consultants, cover crop seed dealers, and strip-till equipment providers, use these case studies with their customers to help answer questions about the costs and benefits of adopting soil health practices.