A study by SHI & National Association of Conservation Districts showing how improving soil health boosts farmers' resilience & profitability.
Agriculture Soil

Improving Soil Health: A Pathway to Resilience and Profitability

The Soil Health Institute and the National Association of Conservation Districts have released the findings of a comprehensive nationwide study that underscores the economic benefits of enhancing soil health. The study demonstrates how adopting soil health management systems (SHMS) can not only bolster the environment but also enhance farmers’ profitability and resilience across diverse soil types, geographical regions, and cropping systems.

The agricultural sector has long been tasked with the dual challenge of producing food for a growing global population while minimizing its environmental impact. The recent study presents a compelling case for the implementation of soil health practices as a means to achieve this balance, showcasing how these strategies offer a tangible return on investment for farmers.

Dr. Wayne Honeycutt, President and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, emphasized the dual nature of the benefits of soil health practices. “We know practices like cover crops and no-till benefit the environment by storing soil carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving water quality,” he stated. “However, investing in soil health is also a business decision. This project provides farmers with the economic information they need to feel confident when making that decision.”

The collaboration, which spanned several years and involved the Soil Health Institute, the National Association of Conservation Districts, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, delved into the economics of SHMS across a wide array of crops and livestock systems. The study’s scope included crops like canola, corn, cotton, soybean, wheat, and more, as well as livestock operations involving dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens, and hogs.

A central component of the study involved interviewing 30 farmers with successful track records of implementing various SHMS practices, such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, rotational grazing, and more, across 20 different states. These interviews aimed to capture farmers’ firsthand experiences and assess the economic impacts of adopting these practices.

Key findings of the study include:
  • Increased Net Farm Income: Across 29 farms analyzed, SHMS implementation led to an average increase in net farm income of $65 per acre.
  • Cost Savings: The study revealed that implementing SHMS reduced costs for growing different crops. Corn production costs were lowered by an average of $14 per acre, soybean production costs decreased by $7 per acre, and the cost reduction for other crops averaged $16 per acre.
  • Yield Improvements: A significant percentage of farms reported yield increases due to SHMS adoption. Approximately 42% of farms growing corn, 32% of farms growing soybean, and 35% of farms cultivating other crops reported yield improvements.
  • Additional Benefits: Farmers cited several additional benefits of adopting SHMS, including decreased erosion and soil compaction, improved access to fields during wet conditions, and increased resilience to extreme weather events.

Jeremy Peters, CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts, emphasized the importance of helping farmers make informed decisions about adopting new practices. “We recognize that farmers must weigh the costs, risks, and overall benefits when introducing new practices into their operations. This project shows that soil health management systems are feasible and profitable.”

The study’s outcomes emphasize the potential for soil health practices to drive economic and environmental progress simultaneously. NRCS Chief Terry Cosby highlighted the broader implications stating: “Soil health management practices help producers increase profits, reduce costs, and limit risks while conserving our nation’s resources.” He also emphasized the critical role of voluntary conservation programs in supporting the viability of U.S. agriculture.

To facilitate knowledge sharing and education, individual farmer videos, economic factsheets, and narratives have been created for each of the 30 interviewed farmers. These resources provide valuable insights into the real-world experiences of adopting SHMS and the resulting economic benefits.

The study’s conclusions extend beyond the 30 farms analyzed, suggesting that many more farmers could stand to gain economically from adopting SHMS. As the agricultural industry continues to grapple with the challenges of sustainability and food security, the findings highlight a pragmatic pathway toward achieving both environmental and economic goals.

By promoting soil health, farmers contribute to the preservation of natural resources and also position themselves to thrive in an increasingly uncertain agricultural landscape. As the Soil Health Institute and the National Association of Conservation Districts continue their efforts to advance soil health science and education, the potential for transformative change within the agricultural sector becomes more evident. Through the adoption of soil health management systems, farmers can forge a resilient and profitable path forward, ensuring a more sustainable future for both their businesses and the planet.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

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