Soil Health Can Combat Climate Change From the Ground Up
Five months after devastating spring flooding across the Midwest, farms along the Missouri River remain under water. This summer, severe drought has hit patches of Texas and Oklahoma. Areas of the West and Southeast are abnormally dry.
As floods and droughts become more common, farmers, scientists and conservationists are looking for ways to resist. One solution to combating the changing climate starts in the ground. A growing number of states across the country are proposing policies to encourage building healthier agricultural soil, a costly investment for many growers, but one that research shows can benefit farmers and the environment.
Just this year, at least 10 states have introduced new soil management policies that call for further research or data collection, or offer tax exemptions, technical assistance or even grant money to, among other actions, plant cover crops, diversify crop rotations and reduce tillage that can tear apart beneficial fungi.
Between 2015 and 2018, states debated 166 bills related to soil health, according to an April 2019 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“When soil is healthy, it can hold a lot more water and drain better, but it also can be part of the climate solution,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior analyst with the nonprofit.
Healthy soil can store more carbon; absorb water like a sponge before becoming saturated, making it more resilient in a dry year; and improve water quality by retaining more water, which reduces runoff from cropland. Healthy soil goes further in meeting the needs of a growing population and food production.
Changing farming practices to promote soil health should be considered a long-term investment, according to many farmers and agriculture experts. However, confusing and restrictive rules regarding crop insurance eligibility also have deterred farmers from adopting practices that can build healthier soil.
"We’re also hoping that if policymakers see how much momentum there is on the state level, they’ll get something going on the federal level."— Samantha Eley, research assistant, the Union of Concerned Scientists
According to Stillerman, the taxpayer-subsidized program has favored commodity crops, like corn and wheat, which have been the most damaging to soil health. Historically, farmers who grow organic crops, alternative grains like oats, or diverse mixes of crops have not been supported well by the program, though that is slowly changing, Stillerman said. The 2018 farm bill, for example, adds more flexibility to how cover crops are treated in order to remain eligible for crop insurance.
The program also is likely to get increasingly expensive as climate changes and floods and droughts become more frequent and severe, Stillerman said in an email.
With farm income down, farm bankruptcies up, low commodity prices and an ongoing trade war with China, some farmers struggle to adopt the very practices that could have helped them weather some of the critical obstacles they face.
“It’s an outlay of cash to begin these practices,” said Ben Steffen, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay in Richardson County, Nebraska, which received federal disaster assistance after the spring flooding. “Given the economic conditions we’re currently in, it’s very difficult to find extra money for those kinds of investments.”
And for some areas, such as the flood-ravaged Midwest, soil health alone won’t help farmers get out from under water.
“It’s not going to help you if you have a broken levee that’s dumping water into your field continuously,” said Duane Hovorka, agriculture program director for the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservation organization based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “There’s no soil cure for that. But where you have excess rain, where you have a wet period, healthier soil will hold more of that water for later.”