Farming for the Future2018-06-28T11:43:58-05:00
Farmer and daughter in field

Courtesy Soil Health Partnership

Farming for the Future

Farmers are at the core of America’s marketplace and communities. More than 3 million U.S. farmers¹ help feed, clothe and fuel a growing world. They support local economies, help neighbors in need, and care for the nation’s lands and waters.
Farmers are also among America’s greatest innovators. Advancements in agricultural technology throughout the past century have allowed farmers to feed a population that has grown from less than 2 billion people to more than 7 billion today. As the world’s population continues to grow, farmers will need to continue the tradition of innovation to keep pace with the rising demand for their crops.

How can farmers feed a growing world?

One solution is right under our feet: Soil. Healthy soil is critical for long-term, sustained food production. Farmers have demonstrated that they can increase organic matter and improve soil function in just a few years through soil health practices.
By adopting practices like crop rotation, reduced tillage, cover crops and nutrient management, farmers can build rich, fertile soil that will benefit both the farmer and the environment. Not only does healthy soil provide essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish, but it makes the farmland more resilient to extreme weather events, decreases erosion and improves water and air quality.
When we take care of our soil, we’re taking care of ourselves and future generations.
Tim Smith - Iowa Farmer
“We know how to build healthier soils, and the benefits are real. It is simply a better way to farm. I am protecting my soil from erosion, greatly reducing my impact on water quality by reducing nitrate and phosphorus loss, and improving soil health that will provide for the long-term sustainability of the land.”
-Tim Smith, Iowa Farmer

Dig Into Soil

Soil in hands

Photo credit: Ron Nichols, USDA NRCS North Carolina

Do you know the difference between soil and dirt? Most people use these words interchangeably, but in the science world they mean different things.
Soil is living and life-giving. It’s made up of a mixture of air, water, minerals and organic matter (both living and decaying) that is nutrient rich and capable of growing healthy plants. Dirt is essentially loose particles of soil that no longer support plant life and often ends up unwanted on our floor.
Here’s the dirt on soil:
  • Soil makes it possible for plants to grow. It’s estimated that 95 percent of the world’s food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils, which supply the vital water, oxygen and nutrients that plants need to thrive.
  • Soil is crucial for clean water. It acts as a water filter, trapping pollutants before they can escape into groundwater supplies.
  • Healthy soil can also capture and store water. During droughts, the water can be absorbed from the soil by crops. During heavy rainfalls, soil can help reduce flooding by slowing the speed that water enters streams and rivers.
  • Soil is one of the most diverse habitats on earth, supporting an estimated quarter of the world’s biological diversity. There are more microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than the number of people who have ever lived! More than 1,000 species of invertebrates can be found in a single square meter of forest soil. Together, these organisms interact and contribute to the global cycles that make all life possible.
  • Soil is a non-renewable resource, which means that any loss of soil cannot be recovered in the course of a human lifespan. In fact, it can take 500 to 1,000 years to naturally build up one inch of topsoil – the layer that allows plants to grow. Some experts estimate that one-third of the world’s topsoil has already been lost.
  • Farmers can increase organic matter and improve the natural function of soil in just a few years using soil health practices like cover crops, nutrient management, crop rotation and reduced tillage.

What Can I Do?

Two people in garden

Courtesy Soil Health Partnership

Backyard gardeners can make an impact in their own communities by using scaled-down farming practices like cover crops and nutrient management. After all, whether you’re growing hydrangeas or tomatoes, healthy soil will yield strong, robust plants for years to come.
Here are some tips to get you started:
  • Find out if your soil is healthy. Garden centers and local Cooperative Extension Services offer testing kits to determine pH levels as well as the amounts of certain nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus or magnesium. Once you know the health of your soil, you can take steps to improve it for the type of plants you are growing.
  • Plant cover crops. You don’t have to own hundreds of acres of cropland to benefit from this farming practice. Between plantings of your primary garden plants, consider growing cover crops – a temporary planting that adds valuable organic matter to the soil, while protecting the ground from wind, erosion and annoying weeds.
  • Use mulch. Natural mulch materials, like bark, hay, grass clippings or leaves, are like a cozy blanket for your soil. Not only do they add valuable organic matter to the soil, but they help the soil retain moisture, reduce erosion and prevent weeds.

Farmer Spotlight

Farmer holding soil

Courtesy Soil Health Partnership

Each day, more than 3 million farmers around the United States strive to make a living from the land. They understand that strong, abundant crops need a healthy foundation. And that starts with the soil. Better soil management can deliver tens of millions of dollars of on-farm value in the U.S. each year. That’s good for the farmer and good for the American economy.
Meet farmers who are transitioning their cropland to improved soil health and nutrient management practices. These farmers are part of the largest farm-led soil health research project of its kind. An initiative of the National Corn Growers Association, the Soil Health Partnership is working with farmers throughout the Midwest to develop a network of 100 demonstration farms to show the economic and environmental benefits of various practices – cover crops, advanced nutrient management, crop rotation and reduced tillage.

More Information

Toil with the Soil: One Family’s Farm is Leaving a Lasting Legacy
Farmer-to-Farmer: Making a Difference for Soil in Iowa

Mississippi River Basin

Mississippi river basin map

© The Nature Conservancy

Some of the most productive farmland in the world is in the Mississippi River Basin. Stretching from the Allegheny Mountains across to the Rockies and south to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River Basin spans 1,245 million square miles in 31 states and two Canadian provinces, forming the world’s fourth largest river basin.
One of the most critical challenges in the Mississippi Basin today is nutrient runoff. Each year, heavy rains and melting snows wash hundreds of thousands of metric tons of nutrients—mostly nitrogen and phosphorous—from a variety sources into the Mississippi River Basin, with agriculture production being a significant contributor. This isn’t good news for farmers, their crops or water quality.
The nutrients flow downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, posing health hazards to the people and wildlife that rely on the Mississippi, as well as considerable economic risk to the communities along the way. Like clockwork, each summer the excessive nutrients cause algae to grow abnormally fast in the Gulf. When the algal blooms die, the decaying matter consumes the oxygen and threatens fish, shellfish, coral and vegetation, causing a hypoxic area, or dead zone.
People throughout the Mississippi River Basin – farmers, communities, agribusiness, city and state leaders – are coming together to find solutions to reduce nutrient runoff and improve soil health. Farmers are leading the charge by transforming how they grow food. Practices like cover crops, buffers, reduced tillage, crop rotation and nutrient management are helping to ensure the Mississippi River Basin waters flow healthy for generations to come.