Quantifying Economic and Environmental Benefits of Soil Health

Soil Health Case Studies

To provide the economic evidence that soil health practices work, AFT estimated the net economic and environmental improvements experienced by four farmers who have adopted several soil health practices, including: no-till or strip-till, cover crops, nutrient managementconservation cover, compost applicationand mulching 

Project at a Glance

AFT used partial budget analysis to estimate the net economic benefits four farmers have experienced from investing in soil health practices (e.g., no-till, strip-till, cover crops, nutrient managementconservation cover, compost application, and mulching). We also used USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool and USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool to quantify the water quality and climate benefits of these practices. 

We’ve produced four two-page case studies that we hope will be useful to farmers and landowners who are curious about soil health practicesto give them confidence that investing in the practices is worth the risk. 

This project is supported by a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant and the case studies are being co-branded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 


The first four case studies feature the following farmers

Future case studies will feature additional farmers from the above areas and also: 

  • corn-soybean farmer from Virginia’s Shenandoah North Fork Watershed  
  • A corn-soybean farmer Illinois’s Upper Macoupin Creek Watershed  


Overarching Findings 

When taken together, the four soil health economic case studies offer interesting insights about yield and income benefits, input benefits, and environmental benefits the four farmers experienced from adopting soil health practices.  

Yield and Income Benefits
  • Improved Yield:  Yields for all four farmers increased.  After accounting for the effects of enhanced seed hybrids and other technological improvements, yield increases associated with better soil health ranged from 2% to 22%.  
  • Annual Change in Net Income:  An evaluation of all reported effects (both positive and negative) from adopting soil health practices shows that the three field crop farmers in the study improved their bottom line by an average of $42 per acre per year.  Due to his high value crop, the almond grower in California saw an increase in annual net income of $657 per acre.  
  • Return on Investment:  ROI allows us to compare the efficiency of investment (i.e., their bang for the buck) among the four farms in the case study by calculating how much they got back per dollar invested.  The average ROI for the four farms is 176% ranging from 35% to 343%.  Note, that although the almond grower saw the highest increase in net income, his ROI of 198% was not the highest because he had to invest more (i.e., in a fertigation system) to see the results he is getting.
Input Benefits and Costs 
  • Changes to Fertilizer Costs:  All three of the farmers growing field crops reported fertilizer savings ranging from $17 to $66 per acre per year.  These changes were primarily due to reductions in phosphorus (between 35 to 50% less applied) and potassium (about 50% less applied) although one farmer was able to reduce nitrogen use on his corn by 5%. The almond grower, on the other hand increased his cost of fertilizer by $60 per acre due to changing the forms of phosphorus and potassium used in order to move to fertigation.
  • Changes to Machinery, Fuel, and Labor Costs:  The field crop farmers also saved on machinery use, fuel, and labor expenses by switching to reduced tillage, thereby making fewer passes over the field.  These savings range from about $18 to $35 per acre per year, averaging $26 per acre per year.  On the other hand, machinery cost changes due to changes in nutrient management varied for all four farms.  Half of the farmers saw an increase in cost, while costs remained unchanged or decreased for the other two.  The greatest increase in machinery cost related to fertilizers was the switch to fertigation for the almond grower with an estimated annual cost of $130 per acre.
  • Pesticide Usage:  Change in pesticide usage was mixed.  Two farmers reduced their pesticide use andsaw savings of $19 and $30 per acre per year while one farmer spends $5 per acre per year more for herbicide application.  The fourth farmer’s use of pesticides was unchanged. 
  • Learning Costs:  All four farmers reported investing their time in learning about soil health conservation practices.  The total cost for each farm ranges from a low of $440 all the way up to $12,940 per year for Niemeyer who spends significantly more time than the other three farmers (even after reducing his total hours by half to account for time spent learning for his cover crop consulting businesses).  The per acre costs for learning range from just 44 cents up to $10.35.  
Environmental Benefits:  
  • Water Quality Improvement – All four farmers saw improved water quality outcomes. All observed reduced soil and water runoff or believes less nitrate is entering the groundwater on their fields thanks to the soil health practices. And USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool estimated that on each farm’s field selected for analysis (ranging between 11 and 110 acres in size)the soil health practices implemented on that field reduced: nitrogen losses from 40 to 98%; phosphorus losses from 74 to 92%; and sediment losses from 76 to 96%.
  • Climate Improvement – All four farmers achieved improved climate outcomes too, as estimated by USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool. The Tool calculated that total greenhouse gas emissions were reduced on each field mentioned above from 16 to 560%, which corresponds to taking between ¾ of a car to 17 cars off the road.  


Contacts for Implementing

Soil Health Practices

Farmers across the country can reach out to their local NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff to help them implement soil health practices on their farm.

In the watersheds featured in the four case studies, farmers can reach out to both the local NRCS and SWCD staff as well as the AFT authors of the case studies:

California – San Joaquin Valley – Almonds
  • AFT case study author: Justin Bodell, AFT California Conservation & Stewardship Program Manager, jbodell@farmland.org, 707-827-3487
  • NRCS and SWCD staff: Madera Service Center, 425 N. Gateway Dr., Suite K, 559-674-4628
Illinois – Vermillion Headwaters Watershed – Corn-soybeans
  • AFT case study author: Dr. Emily Bruner, AFT Midwest Conservation & Stewardship Program Manager, ebruner@farmland.org
  • NRCS and SWCD staff: Ford County Soil & Water Conservation District, 217-349-4388 ext. 3 & NRCS Paxton Field Office, 217 379-2371 ext. 3., 1380 West Ottawa, P.O. Box 232, Paxton, IL 60957
Ohio – Upper Scioto River Watershed – Corn-soybeans
  • AFT case study author: Brian Brandt, AFT Agriculture Conservation Innovations Director, bbrandt@farmland.org, 614-430-8130
  • NRCS and SWCD staff: Denise Shafer, Delaware County NRCS, 557 Sunbury Rd # A, Delaware, OH 43015, 740-362-4011
New York – Genesee River Watershed – Sweet corn, alfalfa, corn silage, corn for grain
  • AFT case study author: Aaron Ristow, AFT New York Agriculture Stewardship Program Manager, aristow@farmland.org
  • NRCS and SWCD staff: Wyoming County Office, 36 Center Street, Warsaw, NY 14569, (585) 786-3118

Addressing Barriers to Soil Health  

AFT’s project addresses three barriers to adoption of soil health management systems (SHMS).

First, many farmers demand more quantitative evidence that SHMS do provide the economic and environmental benefits that are touted before they are willing to take the risk to try them.

Second, other farmers who have successfully adopted SHMS on their own land are reluctant to do so on land they rent for a variety of problems, including annual lease agreements and difficulty reaching or talking with their non-operating landowners, or NOLs.

Third, we know that our local agricultural professional partners (e.g., NRCS, SWCDs, crop consultants, cover crop seed retailers, etc.) are looking for more effective education and outreach tools to help them persuade farmers to adopt SHMS practices.

Our project will address all three problems by:
  1. Producing innovative economic case studies that include quantified soil health, water quality, and greenhouse gas outcomes experienced by farmers who have successfully adopted SHMS,
  2. Sharing those short, compelling case studies with additional farmers and landowners who are curious about SHMS to determine if they are indeed effective outreach and education tools, and
  3. Fostering effective dialogue and deeper relationships between NOLs (in particular women NOLs) and their farmers to achieve better sharing of the risks and rewards of SHMS adopted on rented land.

During the project, we will also train our local agricultural partners who want to learn how to quantify economic and environmental outcomes using the same tools we applied in this project (i.e., economic partial budget analysis, NRCS’s Nutrient Tracking Tool, and NRCS’s COMET-Farm Tool).

Finally, we hope that at a portion of the farmers we interact with over the course of this three-year project will decide to adopt SHMS, and with the help of our local partners, we will provide tailored technical and financial assistance to ensure management changes are lasting.

We hope these innovative outreach and education tools will have a long-term positive effect on conservation adoption in the project watersheds but also in the rest of the project states, if not the rest of the country.

For more information, contact: Michelle Perez, PhD, Project Leader, and Water Initiative Director at mperez@farmland.org.

Project methodology is forthcoming.