Healthy soil, clean water are central to environmentally-friendly agriculture, but the challenges in the field go deep

The future of agriculture lies at the intersection of economic, environmental, political, and familial forces

Healthy soil, clean water are central to environmentally-friendly agriculture, but the challenges in the field go deep
Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist Aaron Wilson leads other conservation professionals on a site visit at a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) project in Kandiyohi County this summer. (Courtesy of Dave Schwarz/Pheasants Forever)

Join us Tuesday, October 17 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a virtual dialogue on sustainability in agriculture. We're looking for landowners, farmers and anyone else interested in land stewardship in Minnesota. Sign up here.

I think about sustainability in agriculture often, as a resident of greater Minnesota and as an environmental journalist. The average age of farmers is 57 in our state and our country. And it's rising as average temperatures rise.

The future ownership of farmland is an open question. Answers range from Bill Gates and other billionaires who’ve bought up hundreds of thousands of acres to minority and first-time farmers trying to break into the field. Agriculture is also central to urgent discussions about greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and the health of the soil itself.

While agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, it also offers potential solutions to increase wildlife habitat and lock polluting carbon into the earth, out of the atmosphere.

I love this topic and have covered it extensively in Minnesota. I am happy to revisit these challenges and solutions in advance of a dialogue hosted by Project Optimist in two weeks. To get a refresher, I talked with Minnesota Department of Agriculture Section Manager Brad Jordahl Redlin. He supports the state's program to improve water quality and a new program to improve soil health, both of which support ecosystems around farms.

Soil health: The capacity of soil to function as an ecosystem with bacteria, fungi, and microbes that helps regulate water, sustain plants and animals, filter potential pollutants, cycle nutrients, provide physical structure and stability.

Minnesota created and piloted an Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program for the rest of the U.S. beginning in 2014. And this year the state launched a Soil Health Financial Assistance Program. They're reviewing the first grant applications now, Jordahl Redlin told me last week.

Here's a snapshot of our discussion which explores agricultural sustainability from demographics and economics to environment and climate issues.

It's been edited for style and length. My questions are in bold. Jordahl Redlin's answers follow.

We know farmers are aging and retiring. What do you see as barriers to entry and what do you see as the future of farming in terms of farmers? What will change, and what's on the horizon?

I'm, first, optimistic to see the energy that's out there in agriculture.

You see a great deal of energy around things, I'll just start with local foods, community supported agriculture, urban agriculture, community gardens — all those things are demonstratively growing in popularity.  I see that same kind of momentum occurring amongst the younger farmers that are coming into commodity production agriculture [which are larger-scale operations] that are really curious, inventive, and inspired about pursuing soil-health-based operations. I can't pretend to know [their reasons], but I think obvious ones are just maintaining the viability of the land. I see a lot of the younger growers are certainly willing.

The challenges are land access, affordability. If you're from somewhere else not on a farm and you want to come here and farm, unless you've got tremendous resources, there's just hardly any chance of that happening.

I don't want to be that bleak about it; it can definitely happen. There are programs in Minnesota and other states and federally that do land linkages. Say I'm a retiring farmer, rather than just wait for the highest bidder, I'm interested in developing a transition plan with a young grower who needs access. And those types of programs are great, but that’s only a percentage of land transactions that are occurring.

What happens in the absence of those programs? Is it that the land transitions away from agriculture in general? Or does it become owned by larger conglomerates?

I'd say there's some transition out of agriculture, that is an ongoing factor. The data shows that yes, farmland is decreasing. But it's a little bit. It's not something that I'm concerned with.

Otherwise what happens is generational transition. [...] That is one more example of that access challenge though, because unless you’re a son or daughter, then you don’t have access to it. Our farm is in Montana; we're generationally transitioning it now to our niece and nephew.

But, otherwise, it's typically neighbors. It's typically the higher-resourced, better-leveraged, larger-operation neighbors who are able to acquire it, whether it's just an outright bidding process, auction process, or a rental and then purchasing what you've been renting. A lot of it, land transactions or land access, it's not purchased. It's rented.

People talk about corporate farms, all that sort of thing. Typically, it's not. It's family farm operations.

So let's switch to the environment and land stewardship side of it. What do we need to do to keep the soil and the land healthy enough to keep producing crops that we need here and crops that we export?

I think that what we need is more intense, higher adoption of soil health practices. What soil health means, what those principles are [include]: keeping a living root in the ground, diversifying operations with livestock. All the things that come along with that are better, more incorporated nutrients in the land, more land capacity and better crop performance. 

You’ll hear a lot about ‘precision ag’ technology working hand in hand with the soil health and sustainability effort. It will not automatically work hand in hand, but if you have access to that kind of technology, it’s outstanding.

Precision ag uses GPS technology to determine what specific parts of a field need. That's about not wasting resources in certain places and being specific about where you fertilize or water or seed?

Yeah, exactly. You can customize an individual parcel. It's challenging to get all your equipment to talk together and that sort of thing, but the opportunities are there.

What it does do is help farm management and conservation farm management. It's that eroded old mound on that hill in the field you'll see often cited when people talk about precision ag. We show that this portion of the field is literally losing money. Everything that you put in that is not returning. The rest of the field is making up the difference. But if you literally just drove around that knob, you'd make more money.

So that's the precision ag point, but the soil health management aspect is building strong organic matter so that the soil is just healthy. I mean, it’s an ecosystem, it's an organism. The soil’s organic matter is the key thing. That’s what carbon is, life within the soil. That’s what keeps it functioning and healthy for continuing years and generations. 

I know that soil health can help create habitat. Can you talk about what it does for ecosystems in general?

Bird species brood [when given the] opportunity. That doesn't exist in a field that doesn't have, for instance, cover crops. But you can also destroy all the nests when you terminate the cover crops.

Cover crops: These are planted around a traditional crop, or after harvest, usually to support the health of the soil by covering the ground and keeping a living root in the soil. They can help control erosion, suppress weeds, reduce compaction of soil, and provide habitat and food.

In my previous career, when I worked on federal farm policy and farm bills and represented a lot of conservation organizations, including wildlife organizations, [we would] talk about how buffer strips are great along streams. They're natural prairie plantings. There's 30 feet, 50 feet of it, and they would find (and this isn’t entirely true, but it’s a good anecdote) that those things turn into buffet lines for a fox, right? All the animals are going to go straight there and the fox just goes along and eats all the eggs. That's a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s accurate. When you diversify landscapes with cover crops, standing grain, post-harvest, etc., all that stuff provides cover and increases the survival for prey species. There's that wildlife benefit. 

There's absolutely cases to be made for highly-erodible, low-functioning, low-performing land to be taken out of production, if it is in production, and put into perennial cover. There's the super successful CRP [the Conservation Reserve Program], that's going to pay you 10 years of rental rate for that.

We’re interested in any way that a grower can be rewarded for the public service of providing natural resource protection.

When you talk more about the big changes, some of those big changes could be really an evolution of the cover crop, which is going in tandem with development of perennial grains like the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota or development of Kernza.

With Kernza, you've got a good solid three years you don't have to retill and replant. That's three years of in-place, intact landscape with a permanent root in the ground and all that stuff. That's outstanding wildlife habitat. Those are opportunities that need to continue to be pursued and explored and optimized. 

Join us Tuesday, October 17 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a virtual dialogue on sustainability in agriculture. We're looking for landowners, farmers and anyone else interested in land stewardship in Minnesota. Sign up here.

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