The math is in: Soil health practices produce real return on investment

Our nation’s farmers and ranchers care deeply about the land. They want to use practices that improve soil health and protect water quality like no-till or strip till, cover crops, and nutrient management.

But, farming is a business like any other. If the numbers don’t add up, it’s hard to make improvements that are good for the environment. Farming is a particularly challenging business in 2019 and investing in new things can often seem too risky when you are hanging on by a thin margin.

That’s why I’m so excited about the release of new American Farmland Trust research that proves soil health benefits go right to farmers’ bottom line. Last week, AFT and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, released four two-page case studies that show healthier soil on farmland brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to both farmers and society.

With support from a competitive NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, AFT staff interviewed four “soil health successful” farmers about the costs and benefits they attribute to their soil health practices. Featured are two corn-soybean farmers from Illinois and Ohio; a farmer with diversified crop rotation from New York; and an almond grower from California whose soil health practices included conservation cover, mulching, and nutrient management techniques like fertigation and compost application.

The case studies quantify key economic factors like increased crop yields, decreased input costs, and increases in annual net income experienced by the four farmers who have invested in practices that build soil health. The economic results are impressive:

  • Increased crop yields: All four farmers saw increased crop yields averaging 12%, ranging from 2% to 22%
  • Increased profits: The three crop farmers saw an average increase in net income of $42 per acre per year and the almond grower’s net income increased on average $657 per acre per year
  • Significant Return on Investment (ROI): ROI for all four farmers averaged 176%, ranging from 35% to 343%

The farmers also report their soil health practices helped them solve erosion problems on their fields. To model the water quality and climate outcomes from soil health practices, AFT used USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool and USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool on one selected field in each farm (ranging from 11 to 110 acres). The environmental outcomes were equally impressive. On average, the soil health practices are resulting in:

  • A 54% reduction in nitrogen losses;
  • An 81% reduction in phosphorus losses;
  • An 85% reduction in sediment losses; and
  • A 379% reduction in total greenhouse gasses, on the selected fields.

Considering these findings, we hope that farmers across the country will:

  • Try the soil health practices knowing they are likely to pay off
  • Reach out to their local NRCS field office for technical or financial support
  • Approach their existing landowners to discuss implementation of soil health practices on rented land and establish leasing terms that will better share the risks and rewards of improved soil health
  • Approach new landlords about acquiring new fields and offer the quantitative evidence that improved soil health will offer a high return on investment on the landowner’s fields
  • Should farmers be successful in securing new fields, we hope they will then use the case studies with their bankers to secure additional financing for the farm expansion

We hope that fellow conservation partners in the public sector (e.g., NRCS, Extension, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and non-profit organizations, etc.) and the private sector (e.g., cover crop seed dealers, no-till and strip-till equipment dealers, ag retailers, etc.) will use these case studies to help their clients better understand the benefits and costs of adopting soil health practices.

Stay tuned, four more case studies from these same states will be released in late 2019/early 2020. Visit www.farmland.org/soilhealthcasestudies or sign-up for email updates from AFT for the latest on soil health and more!

Dr. Michelle Perez is the water initiative director at American Farmland Trust.