Aided by a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant, South Dakota will soon have a field manager dedicated to helping farmers throughout the state improve the health of their soil.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota Corn and the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) are partnering in the project. An NRCS grant will provide $75,000 annually for three years and will be matched by South Dakota Corn and SHP, bringing the total overall commitment to $450,000 over three years.
The money will be used to fund a soil health program and employ a field manager, who will be responsible for coordinating the program.
Jack Cornell, SHP’s national field team director, said the new field manager will provide growers with support in using conservation practices. That could include helping farmers implement changes in practices, providing support on soil sampling, helping them find cover crop seed or interpreting soil samples.
“It’s one thing to do a soil health test, but another thing to figure out what it means,” Cornell said.
The program also would connect farmers with others in the Soil Health Partnership network “so they can engage with other growers and learn from each other – to find out what worked and what didn’t.”
“We can help growers make those decisions on what works best on their farms,” Cornell said. “It’s not implementing an Illinois protocol and making it work in South Dakota. It’s finding what protocol works in South Dakota and for that farmer.”
Most farmers involved in the program start out trying a different practice on 20 to 80 acres. However, many farmers have gone on to adopt sustainability measures on more acres.
“The part I really find exciting is we’re really seeing a change within our growers. The other aspect is the growers are really the mouthpiece of this program,” Cornell said. “They’re the ones who talk about the things that work and things that didn’t work so they can help each other out.”
The Soil Health Partnership bills itself as a farmer-led initiative that fosters transformation in agriculture through improved soil health, benefiting farmer profitability, a stable food supply and the environment. The SHP already has seven field managers in Corn Belt states – two in Illinois, two in Iowa, two in Indiana and one who handles Minnesota and Wisconsin. The National Corn Growers Association administers the program.
Shefali Mehta, SHP’s executive director, said as the network continues to grow, it will accumulate more and more information about what’s working well in multiple states and will distribute that information to help farmers decide what will be effective for them.
“There’s a lot of great work happening in South Dakota. It’s an area that’s been very focused on soil health and land stewardship for quite some time,” Mehta said. “So, we also want to tap into that so we’re learning and able to pull that information in. We see this as a pretty critical role in how things continue to grow our network and our support for farmers across the U.S., and make sure we’re linking into the great work at the state level.”
Jeff Zimprich, state conservationist with the South Dakota NRCS, said the program has great potential.
“We at USDA-NRCS are excited about this new opportunity with the Soil Health Partnership. We already have a great partnership with South Dakota Corn, and this will only help us build on that with this effort of the National Corn Growers Association,” Zimprich said. “I see so much potential to do good things for South Dakota by improving the health of our soils: profitability, resilience to weather challenges and higher quality natural resources. Soil health is not only good for South Dakota agriculture but for all of us who reside here.”
South Dakota Corn Executive Director Lisa Richardson said the addition of a field manager will boost research, generate data and provide farmers with more tools to improve their soils as well as their yields.
“Good, healthy soils are a precious resource and are vital not only to the future of our farms, but also to our nation,” Richardson said. “Our organization is committed to maintaining and improving soil health. Adding a field manager who’s dedicated to the cause will help us determine the best methods of doing that.”
The SHP currently has a network of more than 100 farms in 12 states with a purpose of testing, measuring and advancing progressive farm management practices to enhance sustainability and farm economics. Within the next year, SHP will pilot an online portal that farmers can use to derive farm-specific recommendations to improve their sustainability. The portal also will provide links to local resources and technical assistance.