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Findings 

This page was last updated February 2020. It will continue to be updated as new case studies are released.

 

When taken together, the soil health economic case studies offer interesting insights about yield and income benefits, input benefits, and environmental benefits the eight farmers (six field crop farmers and two almond growers) experienced from adopting soil health practices.

Yield and Income Benefits of Soil Health Practices

  • Improved Yield: Yields for all eight 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 six field crop farmers in the study improved their bottom line by an average of $41 per acre per year. Due to a high value crop, the almond growers in California saw an increase in annual net income of $824 per acre.
  • Return on Investment: ROI allows us to compare the efficiency of investment among the eight farms in the case studies by calculating how much they got back per dollar invested.  With a range of 35% to 553%, the average ROI for the eight farmers of 207% means that on average, the study participants received over three dollars back for every dollar they invested.

Input Benefits and Costs of Soil Health Practices

  • Changes to Fertilizer Costs: Five of the six farmers growing field crops reported fertilizer savings, averaging $36 per acre per year. These savings were due to 20-50% reductions in phosphorus and potassium applications on corn and soybeans. One farmer also reduced nitrogen use on corn by 8%. For the almond growers, one experienced $185 per acre fertilizer savings due to reductions in both nitrogen and potassium applications while the other increased fertilizer costs by $60 per acre due to changing the forms of phosphorus and potassium in order to adopt fertigation.
  • Changes to Machinery, Fuel, and Labor Costs:  Five of the six field crop farmers also saved an average of $35 per acre per year on machinery use, fuel, and labor expenses by switching to reduced tillage (no-till or strip-till), thereby making fewer passes over the field.  On the other hand, machinery cost changes due to nutrient management varied for all eight farms: costs remained unchanged for four farmers, increased for three farmers, and decreased for one farmer.  The greatest increase in machinery cost related to fertilizers was the switch to fertigation for one of the almond growers with an estimated annual cost of $130 per acre.
  • Pesticide Usage: Change in pesticide usage was mixed for the eight farms.  Four farmers reduced their pesticide use due to soil health practices and saw savings range from $15 to $200 per acre per year while two farmers spend an average of $8 per acre per year more for herbicide application.  Pesticide use for the other two farmers was unchanged.
  • Learning Costs:  All eight 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 an Ohio farmer who spends significantly more time than the others 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 of Soil Health Practices

  • Water Quality Improvement: All eight farmers saw improved water quality outcomes. All observed reduced soil and water runoff on their fields or believe less nitrate is entering the groundwater thanks to the soil health practices. USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool estimated that on each farm’s field selected for analysis (ranging between 11 and 175 acres in size), the soil health practices implemented on each field, on average, reduced nitrogen losses 43%, phosphorus losses 74%, and sediment losses 81%.
  • Climate Improvement: Farmers achieved improved climate outcomes too, as estimated by USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool. AFT was able to use the Tool to analyze data from seven out of the eight farmers (one farm could not be analyzed due to a COMET systems-update that interfered with AFT’s publication schedule). Total greenhouse gas emission reductions for five of the six crop farms averaged 217% and was 28% for the two almond growers, which corresponds to taking between ¾ of a car to 17 cars off the road.  

Words of Wisdom

In addition to the statistical results, four of the farmers featured in the February 2020 case studies shared words of wisdom for others considering these practices:

“Our trees are more productive, the soil is healthier, and my orchard is providing environmental benefits like better local air and water quality and lower climate emissions. My philosophy is simple, take care of the soil and it will take care of the trees.” – Tom Rogers, Madera, California.

“We’ve seen a drastic decrease in erosion on our farm after planting cereal rye, and there is noticeably less standing water in our fields compared to our neighbors. Our use of covers has allowed us to reduce our tillage and herbicide inputs and improved our soil structure which has contributed to increased yields.” – Jim Ifft, Ifft Yorkshires, Illinois.

“I believe I figured out a suite of soil health practices that help get my crops started right and early in the spring, while providing efficient feeding of nutrients throughout the growing season. At the same time, reduced tillage practices and integration of cover crops have protected the soil, reduced the washouts and improved infiltration and soil moisture for the crop. Everything combined has helped improved my bottom-line.” – Dan Lane, Homewood Farms, Ohio.

“I am focused on building my soil health and letting nature do some of the work for me. I may not be setting records for high yields, but at the end of the day, I’ve got more money in my pocket instead of shelling it all out upfront.” – John Maccauley, Macauley Farms LLC, New York.