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Soil Health Demonstration Farm Shows Landowners How to Save Energy and Improve W

Bruce Eblen from Henderson, Kentucky has been a no-till farmer for years, but the local NRCS District Conservationist, Kelly Bennett, saw more potential in the farming operation through the use of cover crops. In late 2008, aware that John Graham, Soil Health Specialist, was looking for landowners willing to implement soil health practices on demonstration plots, Bennett suggested Eblen as a possible candidate. A visit to the Eblen farm was scheduled and while there, Graham explained the benefits of soil health (improved physical, biological, and chemical properties, natural nutrient cycling, more landowner self sustainability, re-establishment of healthy broad diverse microbial food web, and the reduction of chemical usage). Eblen signed up for funding through the State Cost Share Environmental Grant and the demonstration project began.

The State Cost Share Environmental Grants are funded by the Kentucky Division of Conservation with technical assistance provided by the Kentucky Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The purpose of the funding is to reduce agricultural non-point source pollution on surface or groundwater by encouraging the adoption of new management techniques or measures that reduce the impact of agricultural pollutants.

Eblen has a five acre demonstration plot that started in 2009 and will continue for seven years as part of the Environmental Grant program. Graham, from NRCS, is providing the technical assistance on the project. The first 5 years, Eblen will sow a cover crop mixture and use the roll down method according to specific planting and kill dates. This is a change from the traditional farming methods but by planting cover crop mixtures earlier in the year and letting them grow until later in the year will provide long lasting soil health benefits. Every plant has a chemical signature to attract the right microbes to carry out metabolic functions which increase nutrient cycling in the soil. Diversity of plants equals diversity of microbes which can keep a single weed from becoming dominant.

The last two years of the contract are maintenance years where the Eblen will continue managing for soil health. The demonstration plot may only be managed for seven years, but the benefits of implementing a soil health system are long lasting. Every year after implementation, the system should become more established and function better and better giving the Eblen more fertilizer and chemical savings and allowing him to become more self sustainable- all while improving the environment.

Eblen’s goal with the demonstration plot was to achieve higher yields, less erosion, use less chemicals and fertilizers, have more organic matter, and to save money by being more efficient. He is very pleased with the project benefits he is already seeing and said, “I will continue to utilize cover crops in my farming operation (after the demonstration project ends).” He continued, “ I will continually educate myself as to what cover crops to use from recommendations from others and my own experiences.”

The ultimate goal would be to completely eliminate the need for commercial fertilizer and chemical applications. “This, of course, is dependent upon each landowner’s ability and understanding of soil health and how to implement it,” said Graham. He added, “The landowners who study the subject and implement the practices needed reap more rewards than landowners who don’t become as much of a student of the soil health system. Landowners who implement soil health systems on their lands also start an environmental healing process in their soils. Most landowners don’t realize that our soils are “sick” due to the way we presently farm. Our current agriculture systems are destroying our soil’s natural properties. Even though we handle the soil every day, most landowners don’t understand that the soil has natural properties and how those properties work.”

Healthy soils clean the air and water, reduce flooding, improve water efficiency and save energy by reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Healing the soil is key to addressing many of our resource concerns. To find out more about practices you can implement to improve the health of your soil, contact John Graham call 859-224-7438.