On Common Ground: IWLA and Farmers Support the Same Soil Health Strategies

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Nathan Anderson

At a June 25 hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation & Forestry, farmers and soil health experts told members of Congress that America should do more to support healthier soils. Healthy soils, the farmers and scientists pointed out, minimize polluted runoff, reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, produce healthier food, store carbon in the soil, and make farms and ranches more resilient to droughts and floods.

The farmers and scientists proposed a variety of strategies that Congress could implement to help build healthier soils across America. The approaches they advocated for are very similar to what the League has long worked towards at the federal and state level.

For example, the League, in partnership with the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), has asked Congress to provide more funding for outreach to farmers. Ian Cunningham, the secretary-treasurer of the NACD and a farmer himself, said emphatically that Natural Resources Conservation Service offices must be staffed with technical experts who can help farmers adopt soil health practices. “If there is no one in an office to provide technical assistance, we are missing out on a clear opportunity to advance conservation and protect our nation’s natural resources,” Cunningham told the subcommittee.

The League also supports programs that help farmers install the new fencing and water systems needed for rotational grazing systems – practices in which cattle or sheep are moved frequently from pasture to pasture. Well-managed rotational grazing systems have been shown to improve soil health. Yet USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture reports that use of rotational grazing systems declined from 2012 to 2017. All together, barely one in five ranchers are managing their pasture and range land using rotational grazing principles.

Chad Ellis, Board Chair of the National Grazing Lands Coalition, stressed to the subcommittee that we won’t improve soil health by applying specific practices to specific problems. Instead, we need to use holistic systems that address many issues simultaneously. “Innovative producers today understand that we do not solve ecological problems by implementing practices,” Ellis said. “Rather, we implement principles.”

The League understands that farming is a business, and that while most farmers want to be good stewards of their land, they won’t bankrupt their families to pay for conservation practices. That’s why we support federal and state programs that help farmers manage the costs and risks of land management strategies that improve soil health.

“As farmers invest in soil health practices,” said Dr. Shefali Mehta, executive director of the Soil Health Partnership, “we also want to ensure that they receive compensation for their private investments, which can have substantial public benefits. By supporting farmers making these investments, we increase the overall well-being of farmers and society.”

Iowa farmer Nathan Anderson went one step further: rebuilding healthy soils on cropland and grassland are critical to his family’s ability to make a living, he said. On a larger scale, Anderson told the subcommittee, soil health practices represent an opportunity to create rural jobs and strengthen rural communities.

The League will continue to work with farmers and soil health experts to advocate for outreach efforts, holistic systems that build soil health while directly benefiting farmers, and voluntary incentive programs that help land managers adopt new soil health practices.

Watch a recording of the hearing, or read the written testimony.

Cover image: Nathan Anderson stands in a wheat field on his family's farm, on a field day he hosted in 2016. Photo courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa.