Indiana is on a Soil Health Kick
Indianapolis, IN, February 4, 2014—Indiana has been on a Soil Health kick! A few years ago, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Indiana Conservation Partnership introduced soil health principles into their conservation work with Hoosier landowners. Indiana is now considered a leader in soil health, and is sharing their lessons learned across the country.
The first lesson to share is clearly defining what is meant by soil health and NRCS State Conservationist Jane Hardisty is eager to provide some clarity. “When we talk about soil health we are talking about a fundamental shift in the way we think about and care for our soil.”
Hardisty explains that soil is not just an inactive growing medium; it is alive and teeming with trillions of microorganisms and fungi that help to provide food, fiber and fuel for our planet. “When we manage the soil so that soil habitat is healthy, it also protects natural resources and results in high production levels,” she said.
According to NRCS, everyone can improve soil health regardless of their land use by using four key principles—minimize disturbance through no till, maximize soil cover, keep living roots growing as long as possible, and grow a variety of plants. When these principles are used together they build the soil’s resiliency, which will reduce flooding; erosion; runoff containing excess nutrients; pesticides and herbicides; hold moisture during drought; and more.
Indiana is also sharing the lesson that managing for soil health is a ‘systems approach’. Shannon Zezula is Indiana’s State Resource Conservationist and is responsible for overseeing the agency’s implementation of conservation practices. He said, “Soil health alone does not necessarily treat natural resource concerns. It’s the continued use of a suite of soil health practices as part of a conservation cropping system that leads to long-term benefits.”
A systems approach includes practices such as continuous no-till or strip till, cover crops, crop rotations, adaptive nutrient management, precision farming technology, and conservation buffers. These practices can be integrated into a profitable and sustainable system where each practice complements the other. Zezula said, “Applying a single management practice may slow the degradation of soil function but can rarely achieve the wide range of improvements and benefits that come with a systems approach.”
Another key lesson being shared is that building soil health is a long-term process and includes these objectives—increasing organic matter, aggregate stability, water infiltration, and water-holding capacity while improving nutrient use efficiency and balancing and diversifying soil biology.
Barry Fisher, Indiana’s Soil Health Specialist says, “I see regenerating soil health as a journey. In fact, in NRCS we use the term soil health more often as a verb instead of a noun.” Fisher is considered a national leader in the field, and is being called on to help train hundreds of employees and farmers in the various soil health principles.
Fisher reminds farmers to be patient and committed when beginning the soil health journey. “When you begin to use the systems approach, it is important to know there is no end date. The important thing is to stay with it,” said Fisher.
According to Fisher, the minute any one of the key elements of a conservation cropping system stop, the benefits begin to degrade. For instance, if the soil is tilled or cover crops are not planted, the organic matter and soil biology in that field will start to release more nutrients, carbon, etc. “Think of it this way, the benefits of a complete conservation cropping system exceeds the sum of the individual parts—those practices that make up the system,” said Fisher.
Indiana farmers that have been on the journey are sharing their successes with other farmers, researchers and legislators across the state and across the nation. The National Association of Conservation Districts will bring their summer meeting to Indiana in 2014 to share Indiana’s lessons learned with national leaders.
Because this is a new way of managing the land, Hardisty wants farmers to know NRCS and our conservation partners are here to help. “Making changes is never easy and it’s important we provide assistance to farmers that helps put them on a path for success,” she said. “We have trained staff throughout the state who can help and we are proud to be working with the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative to provide training and mentoring to farmers.”
For more information about soil health, contact your local USDA NRCS field office by visiting: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/in/contact/local/. The NRCS Soil Health webpage is located at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health/. Information about the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative can be found at http://ccsin.iaswcd.org/.
Jane Hardisty, State Conservationist, 317.295.5801 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Barry Fisher, Indiana Soil Health Specialist, 317.295.5850 (email@example.com)
Shannon Zezula, State Resource Conservationist, 317.295.5888 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rebecca Fletcher, State Public Affairs Specialist, 317.295.5825 (email@example.com)