Soil Health Case Studies Share Farmer Experiences

By Anne Dybsetter, Executive Director, Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership 

April 2020

In 2020, a new resource is available that describes the experiences of farmers implementing soil health practices. Farmers across the state are expanding their knowledge of soil health, and now a new report, “Soil Health Case Studies 2020,” by Aidan Read, describes the experiences and lessons learned of nine farms across southern Minnesota. 

The farmers featured in the case studies were all selected with the help of the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) based on their incorporation of soil health principles and practices. The farmers featured in the study represent a range of acreage and crops, each with specific circumstances and unique operations. All the farmers volunteered their expertise and time to serve as a resource for other farmers. 

University of Minnesota graduate student Aidan Read traveled to farms throughout fall 2019 to meet farmers and learn about their work. He documented both the economic impacts and environmental impacts of their soil health work, as well as challenges they face. 

"As these successful farm management practices become more common, stories like these provide the inspiration farmers need to develop an optimistic view of their own farm futures," said Theresa Keaveny, executive director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. 

One featured farmer, Tom Cotter, produces corn, soybeans, peas, and beef cattle near Austin. He reports that his soil health practices have increased profitability through reduced costs for pesticides, fuel, and nutrients. He also points to cover crops as a valuable forage for his cow-calf operation. Meanwhile, these same practices have decreased stress by adding flexibility to his management system. Reduced tillage has reduced labor time, and saturated field conditions do not last as long. 

Another farmer, Josh Reinitz, produces organic produce near Henderson. He has implemented a highly diverse crop rotation and uses small plots in which he matches the crops to soil conditions. He also uses minimal tillage and cover crops, seeking never to have bare soil. He credits healthier soil with being able to grow higher quality and higher quantity organic produce. 

The stories of these two farmers, plus seven others, center on five soil health principles: keeping the soil covered, integrating livestock, minimizing soil disturbance, keeping a living root in the soil, and using a diverse crop rotation. With farmers at the forefront, these stories of soil health are meant to offer tangible examples, support, and encouragement across the landscape. 

According to Dean Current, program director for University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management, “We plan to expand our network and ability to make these case studies available in electronic form to more farmers and natural resource professionals as they promote and weigh options for adopting soil health practices.”

The case studies were created as a partnership between the Sustainable Farming Association, UMN’s Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM), and UMN Extension’s Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. This is the second set of case studies in a series started in 2018. "This second edition of soil health case studies will help educate and inspire farmers to incorporate soil health practices, cover crops and livestock and how they can be used to minimize risk and improve farm management," said Keaveny.

Soil Health Case Studies 2020 is available online.

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