In the Midwest, Farmers See Boosting Soil Health as an Economic Lifeline - American Farmland Trust

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September 5th, 2019


Cover crops in the Midwest

It’s a tumultuous time to be a farmer anywhere in America, but especially in the Midwest.

Climate change is re-shaping how and where certain crops can grow, family farms are disappearing, and increasingly unstable markets are driving many who depend on agriculture to the brink.

However, to ensure a sustainable future for their land there’s one place more and more farmers know they can turn: the soil beneath their feet.

To document the impact that soil health practices can have, AFT partnered with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service on four new case studies that show healthier soil on farmland brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to both farmers and society.

Two of the four case studies profile farms in the Midwest. Here’s just a preview.

Thorndyke Farms, Illinois

Larry Thorndyke started growing crops over 40 years ago and currently farms with his wife, Beth, and son, Adam, in the Vermilion Headwaters Watershed in Illinois. The family grows corn and soybeans on 2,600 acres across several counties in north central Illinois, leasing all but 230 acres. Adam Thorndyke started farming with his father in 2001, and together they started their soil health journey in 2008 by transitioning from conventional tillage to strip-till on a 200-acre bean field going into corn. Over time they also implemented nutrient management and cover crops.

Though adopting cover crops presented some initial challenges, the Thorndykes have succeeded in implementing a system of changes that have proven to be successful in reducing their inputs while increasing their yields.

  • On the 1,400 acres in this study they improved their bottom line by $34 per acre, or $47,086 total.
  • In addition, USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool analyzed one 70-acre field on the farm and estimated that Larry’s soil health practices resulted in a 192% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions — corresponding to taking 14 cars off the road.
MadMax Farm, Upper Scioto Watershed, Ohio

Eric Niemeyer’s MadMax Farms lies in the middle of the Upper Scioto Watershed in Ohio. Eric is a first-generation farmer in his 15th farming season producing corn and soybeans. He has learned many lessons the hard way by trying different ideas and learning what practices work best on his 1,250-acre operation.

Eric knew his fields were impacted by erosion. When gullies formed in low areas, soil would wash away in areas of concentrated water flow. He recognized that using conventional tillage practices made it difficult to consistently grow a profitable crop. In response, Eric converted his cropland to no-till, adopted variable rate fertilizer application technology, and started planting cover crops on his entire farm.

  • On the 1,250 acres in this study he improved his bottom line by $38 per acre, or $47,569 total.
  • Additionally, USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool estimated that on one of Eric’s 110- acre fields his soil health practices resulted in a 494% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions which corresponds to taking 17 cars off the road.