Soil Health Partnerships Can Help Protect Our Food Supply

Duane Hovorka
Organic farm in Ohio - credit Scott Bauer, USDA NRCS

State, Tribal and local officials around the country are taking action to promote healthy soils, and the Izaak Walton League is working to help them succeed.

A growing body of science shows how healthy soils produce healthy food. Policymakers are learning that healthy soils also protect clean water, reduce erosion, remove carbon dioxide from the air, reduce flooding and make farms more resilient to changes in our climate.

Now policymakers are taking action. States like Maryland, New Mexico and California have created programs to help farmers and ranchers adopt soil health practices. At least 31 states enacted or considered soil health legislation in 2021, and legislation could be introduced in even more states this year.

The League helped craft legislation pending in Iowa to give county soil and water conservation districts more responsibility for promoting soil health. We have also supported bills for getting practical information to farmers and funding for soil health practices in Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Progress for Grant Program

At the national level, League staff developed legislation to create a State and Tribal Soil Health Grant Program. The proposal was included in the Agriculture Resilience Act introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) in the House and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in the Senate. A version of the soil health grant program was also included in legislation proposed by Rep. Rod Davis (R-Ill).

The urgent need to regenerate soil will require government agencies working together with rural cooperatives, the private sector and our farmers and ranchers to ensure the future health of our soil and our food supply.

That grant program would provide $100 million per year to help states develop and implement soil health strategies tailored to the unique soils, climate, and farming systems in each state. Tribal governments could use the funds to create and implement their own Tribal plan, or they could participate in the state plan.

Just as federal grants changed the way states and Tribes manage wildlife, the soil health grant program could advance state and Tribal governments into leadership roles in promoting the widespread adoption of farm and ranch practices that regenerate the health of our soils. It would cover a share of the cost of developing a comprehensive state-wide soil health plan, and then part of the cost of implementing the plan. Each state or Tribe would identify its own priorities, whether planning, education, outreach, research, incentives for farmers or assessing the results.

The soil grant concept is modeled after the very successful State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Program, which was established two decades ago. At a time when most state wildlife agencies were focused on a few huntable and fishable species, the program transformed the way those agencies manage fish and wildlife. Grant funds helped them develop and implement State Wildlife Action Plans that address a wide variety of wildlife conservation challenges and focus on the species most in need of conservation.

Federal conservation programs can do much to encourage farmers and ranchers to adopt conservation practices that restore and protect healthy soils, but those programs only reach a tiny fraction of farmers each year.

The urgent need to regenerate soil will require state, local, Tribal and federal agencies all working together with rural cooperatives, the private sector and farmers and ranchers to ensure the future health of our soil and our food supply.

The League's proposed State and Tribal Soil Health Grant Program would be an important step toward fostering that cooperation.

Soil Health Practices Are Important

  • Reduce or eliminate tilling
  • Maintain living roots in the soil year-round
  • Reduce or eliminate chemical use
  • Incorporate livestock into crop systems
  • Rotate grassland for grazing

Soil Health Is Essential to Human Health

People benefit when fewer chemicals are used on farmland, such as cancer-causing nitrates that leach into water supplies.

Healthy soil holds water and slows runoff, reducing erosion and flood damage.

Managing plants on agricultural lands offers tremendous potential for capturing carbon and reducing the most harmful impacts of climate change.

Maintaining the nation's soil health over the long haul means we can be confident that we will be able to feed ourselves and future generations, and continue to serve as the breadbasket of the world.

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Top photo: Organic farm in Ohio. People benefit when fewer chemicals, like nitrates, are used on farmlands. Credit: Scott Bauer, USDA NRCS.

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