Farmers demo conservation practices to preserve soil for future generations

By Anna Cates,  State Soil Health Specialist

In the shade a big cottonwood in Becker County, thousands of dragonflies buzzed around the 40 people passing around handfuls of soil.

“Feel how much lighter that one is? That’s where I’ve been doing no-till since 1979,” Mike Kucera explained. The USDA-NRCS Agronomist brought soil up from his home farm in Lincoln to show the gradient from a dense, compacted roadway to porous, root-filled healthy soil. The difference is stark: a preserved chunk of the healthy soil weighs ~60% of the compacted one.

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Kristin Brennan, NRCS’ assistant state soil scientist and soil health specialist, is among others leading a series of summer soil health trainings over a two-week period in four regions of Minnesota.
Photo credit: BWSR

Mike, along with the Minnesota NRCS and the Minnesota Office for Soil Health, used hands-on demonstrations to teach soil health to employees of local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and NRCS at four locations around Minnesota in June. Participants spent one day learning classroom material, and a second day out in the field, applying what they learned to a farmer’s land. The farmers shared their management practices and answered questions about what it was like to be farming differently from their neighbors.

Trainees compared physical, biological and chemical properties at two contrasting locations. Healthy soil had more earthworms, faster infiltration, more residue cover, and faster nutrient cycling. Faster nutrient cycling means that less soil nitrate is available to be washed away with heavy rains, which have hit everywhere in the state this year. Faster infiltration means that water is stored in the soil profile, instead of washing soil and associated phosphorus away. Agricultural lands cover about 27 million acres of the state, and managing soil health by reducing tillage and incorporating cover crops into agricultural lands are integral pieces of the state Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

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Rodney Aaron, a Brooklyn Center-based NRCS civil engineer and technician, and Tessa Zee, the Sauk River watershed conservation planner based at the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District office, examined a sample during field training outside Mora, MN.
Photo credit: BWSR

From Marshall to Mora, trainees talked about how difficult it is for producers to make such drastic changes in their systems. Bruce, the farmer with the dragonflies said his father had to die before he could reduce tillage. But now, he would never go back. Bruce’s cousin is starting to try some no-till because he knows Bruce won’t rent him the land when he retires unless he keeps up the healthy soil Bruce has built. Trainees were encouraged by the slow trickle of new faces who ask about cost-share programs for soil health practices around the state. The training gave them new ways to show farmers how their soil had changed with new management.

Bruce’s grandparents lived on the hill with the dragonflies with no running water until 1965. Their house is gone, but the land continues to support his family. By building up his soil, he’s hoping to keep it around for a few more generations.