Field scale soil health demonstrations help farmers envision new systems

June 7, 2021

Adopting a soil health management approach to farming is not as simple as buying a new piece of equipment. Adding cover crops, reducing tillage, or changing rotations can impact weed and fertility management, timing of field work and labor requirements, equipment adjustments, crop varieties, livestock considerations, financing, and more -- and there is more than one recipe for success. Local demonstration farms can help producers work out the details by watching how the practices work on the demo farm and provide opportunities to talk to other farmers and ag advisors who have experience. 

“Around the state, farmers trust farmers who are working on similar soil types, in similar climates, even with the same agricultural service providers,” said Dr. Anna Cates, State Soil Health Specialist with the University of Minnesota’s Office for Soil Health (MOSH). “There’s something about seeing it work for your neighbor that’s more convincing than all the data in the world.”

To encourage on-the-ground examples of soil health, MOSH, the MN Natural Resources Conservation Service, and MN Board of Water and Soil Resources awarded grants to support four soil health demonstration sites across the state. Kittson, Wilkin, Waseca, and Rock Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) will each receive funding to establish on-farm, field-scale plots. They will be in place for at least three years, will contribute data to a statewide soil health database, and serve as sites for outreach and education in local communities. 

“Working with the districts means that we’re plugging into existing local networks to help amplify our outreach on the practical application of soil health practices,” said Kristin Brennan, Assistant State Soil Scientist and Soil Health Specialist with MN NRCS. “And we’re really excited to have such a diverse range of sites from across the state.”

Practices being demonstrated vary by site, but most include reduced tillage and cover crops in a common row crop rotation, compared to full-width, no cover crop fields alongside. Reducing tillage and incorporating cover crops improves soil structure and reduces soil and nutrient loss, but farmers are sometimes wary of the risks with trying something new. 

Addressing agricultural risk is most successful when independent farmers, government staff, and ag retailers and consultants build long term relationships to solve problems together. All four of the demonstration site projects are led by partnerships like these, including partnerships with local NRCS offices, American Crystal Sugar, MinnDak Farmers Cooperative, General Mills, Cooperative Farmers Elevator, and the MSU-Mankato Water Resources Center. The SWCD can provide information on government programs and a place to test risky practices, farmers anchor the discussions in practicality, and ag industry ensures farmers will have market and support infrastructure. 

”These are just small seed grants,” said Cates. “But we hope each project builds connections and starts conversations that ripple out into the farm community.”

See for more information about soil health practices and projects in Minnesota.

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