By Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, Ph.D. Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology

Spring planting season in the Corn Belt reminds those of us living in the region that soil erosion is still a serious concern as we gear up for another year of intensive corn and soybean cultivation. For example, the Environmental Working Group, with the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, estimate that millions of acres of Iowa farmland are losing dangerous amounts of soil through wind and water erosion at levels far exceeding the so-called tolerable rate of soil loss (5 tons per acre). This has serious impacts on water quality via sedimentation and carries an economic cost to farmers and to society. Soil resources are a critical part of productive and healthy agroecosystems, yet we are only beginning to truly appreciate their global importance for reducing climate related risks. Globally there is increasing recognition that we must do a better job with our soil resources by not only preventing erosion but also building soil health over the long-term.

Riding in trucks with farmers

One of the best memories from my time working in the Corn Belt over the past four years was a visit I had with a farmer in South Dakota. I spent the afternoon hours interviewing this farmer in his kitchen where we talked about conservation practices, his experience with extreme weather, and perspectives on climate change. He then took me on a “tour” of his corn and soybean fields to show off his no-till fields, proud as he was of his “residue,” or residual plant life from a prior years’ cash crop. This farmer had observed that his farming practices had improved the health of his soil and thus improved the productivity and resilience of his farm operation.

Another memory that strikes me is a visit I made to a farmer in Northeast Iowa, who took me on a truck bound tour on dirt roads around his cropland to point out the erosion problems he has observed on neighboring fields while proudly boasting about the lack of erosion problems on his own fields. Both of these farmers, along with many others interviewed as part of this project (159 farmers in total) spent a lot of time qualitatively discussing their relationship to their soil resources by noting the color, texture, and function of their soils, often describing improvements in infiltration rates and reduced compaction due to conservation practices that they had implemented on their farms.

A reciprocal relationship between humans and nature

My research examines in-depth interviews with farmers across nine Corn Belt states by assessing how farmers respond to weather related risks and specifically, how they might alter management practices in response to increased weather variability and projected climate change. Through my conversations with farmers, many of them described an evolving relationship with their soil resources, through a kind of social-ecological feedback, often brought about through changes in their use of conservation practices, such as no-till farming and cover crops.

Re-valuing the soil beneath our feet

Outreach efforts with the Natural Resource Conservation Services’ (NRCS) Soil Health Initiative, and other climate change outreach efforts targeting agricultural producers, should start with the concept of soil health stewardship. Focusing on the message of managing soil health to mitigate weather related risks and preserve soil resources for future generations may provide a pragmatic solution for engaging farmers in strategies that have soil building and soil saving at their center.

Focusing on communication, however, may not be enough to incentivize farmers to manage their soil resources differently, particularly in agriculturally intensive regions such as the Corn Belt where there is a direct cost associated with the use of conservation practices in the context of an already expensive production system. We need to do a better job of placing value on soil resources that have been retained (e.g.,erosion prevention) and enhanced (e.g., improved soil health) so that farmers are better able to implement soil stewardship on their farm for the long-term resilience of their operation.

This challenge requires new research to simultaneously ensure profitability while protecting and renewing the environmental systems that support agriculture. Increased funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a competitive research program of the USDA, is an important investment in the future of food and will likely benefit farmers, society, and pave the way for a more sustainable agrifood system. My work suggests that starting with the soil, and farmers’ relationship to this valued resource, provides a critical pathway that links on-farm productivity with longer-term environmental sustainability.