Connecting the dots between farming, weather, risk management, and soil health

After working with our basin agronomist this past summer – meeting farmers, making videos for our YouTube channel, and in general soaking in (pun intended) as much information as I could about what it means to be a farmer in today’s world – one thing is for certain: I now pay a lot more attention to the weather. With the cold, wet spring this year, the droughty months of June and July, the intense bursts of rain in August where literally inches of water were hitting the ground in a matter of hours – I’ve been finding myself frequently wondering, “Wow, I wonder how the fields are handling this and what the farmers are thinking.”

The drainage ditch in front of my house during one of the August intense rainstorms. On a farm field, where does that equivalent volume of water go? The answer lies in how healthy the soil is.

It definitely brings home the point that farmers never get to let down their guard – each day and change in the weather forecast brings new uncertainty and potential risk. Farmers have to trust that the decisions they’ve made on their land to this point will hopefully see their crop through to harvest in the fall. It’s a level of risk management and regular stress that I think many of us who live in more developed areas don’t realize and appreciate to the level that we should. The fortunes of these farmers are largely tied with what Mother Nature has going on, and Mother Nature doesn’t have loyalties to anybody.

The situation then begs the question: what can farmers do to help make their fields more resilient when nature throws her curve balls? The reverberating answer I’ve heard from our conservation ag partners and staff boils down to a simple phrase: build healthier soil.

What does a healthy soil look like and behave? Our agronomist Jennifer Hahn takes us to a Chisago County farmer’s field to tell us.

Healthier soil can handle the pounding of an intense rain (the terminal velocity of an average raindrop is about 20 mph!), can infiltrate more water, and can also retain and store more water. A common factoid you’ll see promoted in soil health circles is that healthy soil can retain up to 20 times its weight in water. That measure depends on what type of soil you have to begin with, but still, chunky, clumpy, dark, microbe-rich soil is going to do a lot more for helping a farmer’s fields weather intense rainstorms and drought than a soil that has been broken up into a single-grain structure by repeated tillage. Single-grain soil will wash away in the next storm and doesn’t have the capacity to store as much water in reserve during times of drought.

Conventional versus conservation tillage – what difference does it make to the soil?

It seems like a no-brainer then, to promote management practices that focus on building up soil to help buffer weather extremes. This past summer our agronomist Jennifer Hahn, in partnership with our ag staff partners, put together a new Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership-funded program to incentivize farmers to try different conservation practices that will help them build healthier soils in the long term. Cover crops, no-till, minimal-till, prescribed grazing, and nutrient management are all practices on the table with per acre financial incentives to help reduce risk for farmers who are trying out a new practice for the first time (for more context on why farmers might be leery trying conservation tillage practices, here’s a previous blog post for context).

The new program is a hit, with tens of thousands of the $100,000 budget quickly becoming encumbered as farmers across the basin are signing up acreage to try a new practice for the next three years. Jennifer also helped lead a team this summer to secure a $200,000 Clean Water Legacy grant for further implementation of soil health building practices into the next two years.

Of course, while the end goal is to help improve farm resiliency in the face of weather extremes, reducing some risk and uncertainty for farmers, healthier soil also benefits all of us. Reducing field runoff and soil erosion is a great way to reduce pollutants (nutrients and sediment) making their way to our lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Every pollution reduction helps, and it’s a great feeling that by enabling our farmers more flexibility and less risk in trying more practices that keep their soil and water on their fields, we also get to share in the benefits of cleaner water.