By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The drought may have subsided somewhat in Ohio and neighboring states. Even so, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is spearheading an effort to show farmers the benefits of improving and maintaining the soil they use.
“This initiative will help our farmers meet current and future demands for American-grown agriculture by encouraging good soil and natural resources practices that are beneficial to their operations,” said NRCS chief Dave White. “We understand that soils and farms vary across the country, so our job is to provide farmers the very best information available to meet their unique needs and help their business thrive.”
White visited the farm of David Brandt, who experienced a successful harvest despite extreme weather and challenging growing conditions. Good soil conditions and management practices contributed to the surprising yield, though little precipitation fell across central Ohio over the summer.
Brandt promotes soil health by eliminating plowing and by mixing cover crops. This has significantly reduced the effort he puts into his crops. He said his soil has been found to be rich in spongy organic matter that feeds crops and holds more than its own weight in water. This additional moisture retention is believed to be the basis for Brandt’s success in the face of the current drought.
“Cover crops have helped out this year, especially in the drought situation we’ve had here in northwest Ohio,” said Allen Dean, who farms in Williams County. “Cover crops allow us to open up the soil and we’ve been able to get roots down deep into where the moisture and nutrients are.”
NCRS’ awareness and education effort is geared toward farmers in Ohio, Indiana, Utah, North Carolina, New Mexico, Montana and Kansas. The goal is to help growers in these states see how improved soil health can benefit their operations. The agency plans on studying successes and identifying lessons from these states to share with farmers in other states.
Eventually, awareness and education components of NRCS’ soil health initiative will include fact sheets, brochures, videos and Web, radio and social media announcements, as well as local field days.
“Runoff is a system of poor soil function,” said Ray Archuleta, NRCS conservation agronomist. “The more one can capture the water, the better the soil will be and that’s what gets you through these droughts. Healthy, moist soils are resilient against drought because they have more organic matter in them.”
Jeff Moyer, farm manager at Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Kutztown, Pa., has concluded organic crops perform up to 100 percent better in drought and flood years, calling the crops “healthier and more resilient.”
For the past three years, the NRCS, USDA and Farm Service Agency have worked with more than half a million farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to enroll record acres in conservation programs.
“NCRS gives technical assistance to farmers who want to use no-till farming crop rotation and cover crops to help soils stay cooler, wetter and more biologically more active,” Archuleta said.