Soil Health Case Studies Findings  - American Farmland Trust

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Soil Health Case Study Findings

This page was last updated September 2022. It will continue to be updated as new case studies are released.

The economic and environmental results from 13 soil health case studies are summarized below. AFT and partners used AFT’s Excel-based Retrospective Soil Health Economic Calculator (R-SHEC) Tool and associated Soil Health Case Study Tool Kit to conduct a partial budget analysis of adopting soil health practices for each case study. These case studies analyze the costs and benefits of adopting soil health practices reported by “soil health successful” row crop farmers or almond growers. To learn about our Soil Health Case Study Tool Kit methods and how to produce your own case studies, visit our “Quantifying Economic and Environmental Benefits of Soil Health” webpage.

Additional soil health case studies were produced using a different method and dataset, the Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary (DFBS) survey, to determine if soil health practices can be adopted while improving or maintaining economic performance. These case studies are not included in the findings summary below.

Of the 13 case studies, 10 feature row crop farmers and 3 feature almond growers. Information on case study farms’ location and soil health practices are provided below in table format. Though location and crop types vary, each “soil health successful” farmer has a positive economic story to share about their investment in soil health practices. All featured producers adopted cover crops, in addition to various strategies for reducing tillage, changing nutrient management, and diversifying crop rotations.

Table 1: American Farmland Trust Soil Health Case Studies (Produced Using the R-SHEC Tool) by State

 

Results presented below have been updated to 2021 prices to ensure comparability. Prices in individual case studies were published with price data from 2018 or 2020 and will differ to the results below.

Yield and Income Benefits of Soil Health Practices

  • Improved Yield: Eight of the ten row crop farmers and all three of the almond growers attribute a yield increase to their soil health practices, which we valued at $14 to $151 per acre for row crops and $46 to $968 per acre for almonds based on national average row crop prices and California average almond prices, respectively.
  • Annual Change in Net Income:  An evaluation of all reported effects (both positive and negative) from adopting soil health practices shows that the ten row crop farmers in the study improved their bottom line between $4 and $59 per acre per year. Due to a high value crop, the three California almond growers in the study saw an increase in annual net income ranging from $99 to $1,502 per acre per year.
  • Return on Investment (ROI): ROI allows us to compare the efficiency of investment among the producers in the case studies by calculating how much they got back per dollar invested. The ten row crop farmers’ ROI ranged from 7% to 343%. The three California almond growers’ ROI ranged from 198% to 553%. This wide range of ROI is due to the varied locations, crops, and practices analyzed for each “soil health successful” farmer.

Input Benefits and Costs of Soil Health Practices

  • Changes to Fertilizer Costs: Five of the ten row crop farmers reported fertilizer savings ranging from $16 to $70 per acre per year. Three row crop farmers reported no change in fertilizer costs and one row crop farmer reported a $69 per acre per year increase in costs. For the almond growers, Rogers saved $197 per acre per year on fertilizer due to reductions in both nitrogen and potassium applications while Sauter increased fertilizer costs by $64 per acre per year due to changing the forms of phosphorus and potassium in order to adopt fertigation. The Gemperles experienced no change in fertilizer costs.
  • Changes to Machinery, Fuel, and Labor Costs:  Nine of the ten row crop farmers saved $14 to $77 per acre per year on machinery use, fuel, and labor expenses by switching to reduced tillage, thereby making fewer passes over the field. The tenth row crop farmer experienced no change in tillage machinery costs. None of the almond growers conduct tillage, as expected.
  • On the other hand, machinery cost changes due to nutrient management varied: costs remained unchanged for five farmers, increased for four farmers ranging from $7 to $32 per acre per year, and decreased for one farmer by $3 per acre per year. The greatest increase in machinery cost related to fertilizers was the switch to fertigation for one of the almond growers, Sauter, with an estimated annual cost of $138 per acre. Nutrient machinery costs for the other two almond growers remained unchanged.
  • Pesticide Usage: Change in pesticide usage was mixed for the ten row crop farms: two farmers reduced their pesticide use due to soil health practices by $16 and $20 per acre per year; three farmers increased their pesticide use spending by $5, $7, and $12 per acre per year due to increased herbicide applications; and for the remaining five farmers, pesticide use remained unchanged. All three almond growers reduced their pesticide use due to soil health practices by $32, $162, and $212 per acre per year.
  • Learning Costs: All thirteen producers reported investing their time in learning about soil health conservation practices. The estimated annual cost by each producer (using the Bureau of Labor Statistics national average farm manager labor rate of $26.18 per hour) ranges from $441 to $4,151 per year, with an outlier of $13,750 per year by Ohio producer, Niemeyer, who spends significantly more time than the other producers at 530 hours per year (even after reducing his total hours by half to account for time spent learning for his cover crop consulting businesses).

Environmental Benefits of Soil Health Practices

  • Water Quality Improvement: All ten row crop farmers observed less soil and water runoff on their fields or believe less nitrate is entering the groundwater thanks to their soil health practices. USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool estimated that on each farm’s field selected for analysis (ranging between 7 and 140 acres), the soil health practices implemented reduced nitrogen losses from 23% to 85%, phosphorus losses from 22% to 96%, and sediment losses from 29% to 99%.
  • Climate Improvement: Producers achieved improved climate outcomes too, as estimated by USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool. AFT was able to use the Tool to analyze data from all ten row crop farmers. Total greenhouse gas emission reductions ranged from 35% to 560%, 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 Macauley, Macauley Farms LLC, New York.