February 24, 2020

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"lt All Starts with Healthy Soil"


Tim Smith is among a growing number of innovative farmers who are managing their croplands with practices that promote conservation of land and waters while increasing crop yields. On November 1, 2016, Tim joined experts from The Nature Conservancy, General Mills and the Soil Health Institute at the annual BSR Conference in New York City to launch the reThink Soil initiative. Developed by an interdisciplinary team of Conservancy experts, with support from General Mills, reThink Soil outlines a 10-point roadmap to achieve significant conservation and economic benefits of healthy soils, including $1.2 billion in annual net economic gains for farmers and $7.4 billion in water and climate benefits.

Tim shares his experiences and lessons from his farm with Larry Clemens, North America Agriculture Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. 

Larry: Tell us about your farm and the types of soil health practices you’ve been using.

Tim: I farm about 800 acres of corn and soybeans near Eagle Grove, Iowa, about 90 miles north of Des Moines. It’s a family farm that I grew up on. About six years ago, I started planting cover crops as part of the Mississippi River Basin Initiative, a program of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The goal of that program is to reduce nitrites and phosphorus loads that contribute to the yearly hypoxy problem in the Gulf of Mexico.

I also use nutrient management practices, and I changed my tillage practices to something called strip tillage. I till a very narrow band where I plant next season’s crop. I leave the residue on the surface, which enriches the soil and helps guard against erosion.

Larry: Did you change your practices because of the incentives offered by the NRCS program or was there another motivation to try these soil health practices?

Tim: The NRCS program certainly offered incentives, but I had an interest in trying strip tillage. The cover crops were the last thing I agreed to do, but now, I find that cover crops are the most important thing that I do. Cover crops help prevent erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, and help suppress weeds.

Larry: Your farm is also enrolled as a demonstration site with the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), an effort led by the National Corn Growers Association. The Nature Conservancy is proud to be a science advisor to that partnership. Tell us about your work with SHP.

Tim: I became involved with the Soil Health Partnership three years ago, when I enrolled my farm as a demonstration site to test different soil health practices, like cover crops. Now, my farm is one of 65 demonstration farms throughout the Midwest. SHP is processing a lot of data from the demo farms and analyzing the trends and quantifing the benefits of the practices. It takes time to assess the results, but I think they’re doing a good job.

Larry: You have been using these practices—cover crops and strip tillage—on your farm now for several years. Have you seen any benefits to the health of your soil?

Tim: I started using these practices in 2011 to save my soil from erosion. We can’t improve the soil if we don’t save it from eroding away. The following year was a drought year, so erosion wasn’t a problem with the lack of rainfall. But the following two years, we had excessive rainfall. Every raindrop has the potential to take soil away. Each of those years, we saw 10 to 12 inches of rain within about 2 weeks, and the soil was super saturated. Using these practices saved my soil, without a doubt.

Larry: You’ve talked about the immediate benefits of soil health practices, including simply holding soil in place. Do you think these practices are going to pay off in the long term as well?

Tim: I do. These practices enable me to apply nutrients more efficiently, which saves me money, and they help improve water infiltration, which stops my soil from eroding. My soil structure has changed for the better. As far as the economic side, my greatest financial asset is my land. And to see that wash away is discouraging, so whenever I can find a tool that can help mitigate soil erosion, I think it’s really important.

Larry: I’ve visited your farm fields and have seen the improvements for myself. The quality of your soil is quite impressive. What advice do you have for the key players in the agriculture and food supply chain – the food companies, agribusiness companies, and the science and policy communities?  How can they help encourage adoption of healthy soil practices?

Tim: I think consumers expect more from agriculture, and more from how we grow our food and how we treat our animals. I think consumers need to see that farmers are willing to make changes that are sustainable for our water, our land, and our food. Companies can work together to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers to show that the agriculture community is making strides to improve water quality while growing crops in a healthy way—and that starts with soil health.

About Tim Smith
Tim Smith, a fourth generation farmer in north Iowa, has long worked to improve soil health and water quality through sustainable agriculture practices. He was honored by the National Corn Growers Association as the inaugural recipient of its Good Steward Recognition Program, an award that celebrates sustainable agriculture practices that keep lands and waters healthy and productive. In 2015, Tim was among a dozen people honored as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture for his efforts to use sustainable agriculture as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture.

Photo credit: © Soil Health Partnership 

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