WASHINGTON — The following opinion piece was written by David Brandt, Farmer, Soil Health Academy President.
During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Sec. of Agriculture (then nominee) Tom Vilsack said that under his leadership “USDA will lead the federal government in building and maintaining new markets in America that diversify rural economies… embracing sustainable and regenerative practices that enhance soil health; and delivering science-based solutions to help mitigate and reduce climate change.”
As a farmer and as president of the non-profit Soil Health Academy, I’m encouraged by these words.
Restoring the health and function of our living and life-giving soil is not only key to increasing carbon sequestration, but also key to growing more nutrient-dense food, improving farm profits, increasing biodiversity and wildlife and restoring the vitality of our rural communities.
However, like many other well-intentioned policy ideas, the devil is in the details—especially regarding the way in which soil health and regenerative agriculture “incentives” are delivered to the farmers and ranchers who need to successfully implement them.
What we have experienced during the past several decades of farm conservation policy is an emphasis on financial assistance delivery at the expense of a woefully inadequate effort to educate farmers and ranchers on the principles and practices that enable soil health—as well as sustained technical guidance to ensure they’re successful when implementing those practices.
Conservation financial assistance programs, while growing in policy popularity, provide little in the way of evaluating the long-term efficacy of those programs or in pairing that assistance with critical education and hands-on technical assistance activities for farmers and ranchers.
We know through experience that the absence of soil health education and training often leads to practice failures, wasted tax dollars and producers insisting that they “Will never do that conservation practice again, because it just didn’t work.”
I’ve heard a number of my fellow farmers utter those exact words.
In instances where producer-targeted soil health education and training is undertaken by government agencies, those efforts often lack the perspectives and experiences of successful soil health farmers. Further, government agencies sponsoring these education activities often lack the resolve to rebuff the conventional agricultural model for fear of offending the agri-industrial behemoths that continue to profit handsomely from the status quo, even as farm families struggle to stay afloat. Consequently, government training instructors can easily run afoul of their political overlords in advocating soil health-promoting practices that reduce synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use.
The good news is, I believe all of these obstacles can be overcome through two key measures.
The first involves the necessary coupling of education and training with conservation financial assistance programs. Even without statutory or program requirements for these measures, agencies can emphasize and prioritize soil health education and training for their employees and for the farmers and ranchers they serve. The successful, long-term implementation of soil health practices is wholly contingent upon producers understanding soil health principles before attempting to put those practices on the ground.
The second measure requires partnering with qualified, non-governmental organizations to provide the practical, farmer-to-farmer education and training necessary to ensure producer success. There are proven non-government organizations like the Soil Health Academy that are already working successfully in farmer-to-farmer learning sessions on soil health, but this could be scaled up to reach many more farmers. Coupled with on-line training options, these efforts will ensure the successful implementation of soil health-focused regenerative agricultural practices.
To fully achieve our shared goals and to improve the health and function of our living and life-giving soil, Mr. Secretary, we must first seek to understand—we must first seek to educate.
About the author: David Brandt is the president of the non-profit Soil Health Academy and farms 850 acres in central Ohio’s Fairfield County. He began no-till farming in 1971 and has been using cover crops since 1978. David has participated in yield plots for corn, soybeans and wheat into various covers, the information from which has been used by seed growers as well as county agents and universities to encourage other farmers to adapt no-till practices in their farming operations. He has also been planting various blends of cover crops to find out what benefits they provide to improve soil.
The winner of numerous environmental stewardship awards, David is currently working with Ohio State University’s Randall Reeder and Rafiq Islam on reducing input costs of fertilizers and herbicides using soil health-improving multi-species cover crops. In addition, he is a technical advisor for OSU-Lima’s 10-year, 600-acre, regenerative farm-transition research project.
–David Brandt, Farmer, Soil Health Academy President