New Practices for Building Soils Give MN Farmers Hope for the Future

Feb 20, 2020

Farmers in Minnesota and around the country are struggling. Especially for small farmers, issues like severe weather, globalization, low commodity prices, and trade wars have made it hard to make a living. One bright spot may come from new methods of sustainable farming that strengthen soil health. These new methods allow multiple uses for the same acreage, strengthen resiliency against severe weather, and lower the number of “inputs” (such as fertilizer) needed to grow a robust crop.

On March 5th, people with a passion for soil health are gathering at the historic Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River for the annual Midwest Soil Health Summit. Kent Solberg, Livestock and Grazing Specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and one of the founders of the Soil Health Summit, spoke with Maggie Montgomery as part of Northern Community Radio’s Wednesday Morning Show. He talked about how farmers in Minnesota are doing and how sustainable soil practices can help.

Maggie Montgomery (MM): I hear that this is a tough time for farmers. Do you mind if I ask - as you visit with farmers and professionals around the state - are they doing OK?

Kent Solberg: You know, there's really a struggle out there. Multiple years of low commodity prices has really taken their toll. And, you know, farmers, it's more than just a job. It's more than just a lifestyle. It's about a family legacy. Many of these farmers are third and fourth generation farmers. Financially, a number of them either are or are close to the brink of losing everything. And they don't want that weighing on their shoulders.

So that just provides an inordinate amount of stress. We, along with many other organizations, are working to try and provide services to help them deal with that right now. Part of what we want to help them with is just new ways of looking at dealing with their operation, and that's through principles and practices that promote soil health - because that may be a way to move the farm from the red to the black.

MM: What would change that would do that?

Kent Solberg: In soil health, what we focus on is building soil aggregation. When we do that, we build soil function. When we do that, we restore the nutrient cycle. And when we do that, we can start reducing input costs like synthetic fertilizer costs. We can implement practices like no till and reduce passes across the field. We can even reduce pesticide use on each field because when the plants are healthier, because the soil is healthier, they're more resistant to the bugs and disease that can attack these things. It's a great way for farmers to move towards building financial resiliency in their farm as well as dealing with weather extremes.

MM: You're talking really about a brand new way of moving away from our traditional tillage and commercial agriculture into something a little bit different.

Kent Solberg: Exactly. We're talking about biomimicry here, actually farming in concert with nature. And we find we have numerous case studies, not only across Minnesota, but across North America and even the world, where farmers have moved in this direction. It's just made a huge positive impact on their farm and other communities.

MM: The theme of the summit this year is “the farm as a reflection of the farmer.” What does that mean?

Kent Solberg: We leave a footprint in our life, whatever we do and wherever we go. A lot of farmers, as I mentioned earlier, feel their farm is part of their family legacy. Part of that family legacy is just demonstrating good stewardship. Most farmers want to do that, and we want to offer skill sets to help them do a better job of that. So that as that farm transitions to the next generation, they'll be leaving land healthier than maybe when they found it, and the next generation can build upon that.

MM: The summit this year is taking place at the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River. What can you tell us about that place?

Kent Solberg: Oliver Kelley's kind of a historic figure in Minnesota. The Minnesota Historical Society maintains that site. They have a newer convention center there. I believe it opened up in 2017. But Oliver Kelley was an early farmer who helped form the Grange in Minnesota, which was one of the first farm cooperatives to help farmers market their products in order to try and leverage better prices. Now, Mr. Kelley didn't do so great as a farmer. But the legacy left behind about building cooperatives, and farmers working together, lasts today.

MM: At the summit, you have two tracks going on. One of them is called silvopasture and the other is agronomics. Those terms aren't super familiar to me. What can you tell us about those?

Kent Solberg: Silvopasture is the intentional incorporation of trees, forage and livestock on the same acreage. It's a way to stack enterprises on a farm, both short-term, such as forage production - and the livestock; the benefit the livestock get out of that - but also longer. In Minnesota it’s going to be mostly timber production. But in some parts it could be fruit or nut trees. There's people working with hazelnuts, using livestock underneath. This is different than what some might see, where the cows are just turned out in the woods or whatever. This is all very highly managed and very intentional in order to achieve specific goals.

The agronomic track, that’s more about conventional cropping; our cropping systems for corn, soybeans, wheat, field peas, dry edible beans, whatever. It's just to provide opportunities for farmers who work in those worlds to learn more about what they're doing, or what they can do.

MM: You have a couple of keynote speakers coming in. One is Jon Stika. He wrote a book…

Kent Solberg: Yeah. He wrote “The Soil Owner's Manual How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.” It's a very concise and comprehensive book, whether you've got a garden or you're farming tens of thousands of acres. The principles that Stika lays out in there are the principles that we espouse through the Soil Health Summit and our work with individual farmers. And John just does, in that book, an excellent job of concisely lying those things out.

Our second speaker is John Mesko, who's the Senior Director of the Soil Health Partnership. The Soil Health Partnership is a consortium of resources, if you will, from the corn growers, the soybean growers and the wheat growers. They've developed a very robust program now along the lines of soil health. So he’ll be talking about the future and how the commodity groups can come alongside this effort to help farmers.

MM: You know, some of those practices that you talked about that were from the Soil Owner’s Manual…off the top of your head, what of those things can most of us do to help our soils?

Kent Solberg: Real quick, just diversity in the plants that are out there. We can do that through very diverse crop rotations, whether it's in our garden or in our crop fields, or provide more diversity in our pastures in just the sheer number of species of plants. That’s a quick thing people can do. Intercropping in your garden is a great way to do this. There's a host to cover crops that are available. Some people have estimated as many as 150 potential different plant species that can be used as cover crops. That's big.

Then just keeping the soil covered all year-round; and then keeping a living plant in the soil year-round. That's where cover crops can really come in to help do that, even in a garden-type situation. And then, minimizing disturbance, whether that's tillage or the use of synthetic fertilizers. Even too much application of manure is considered a disturbance. So just minimizing those things creates a great home or a great habitat, if you will, for the soil microbes. That's going to build soil aggregation and the whole system is just going to work a whole lot better.

MM: How are we doing in Minnesota? Overall, are our soils generally better or worse than they are in other parts of the country?

Kent Solberg: I can't compare better or worse, but what I can say is, about three or four years ago, those of us working in this world really felt like we were pushing a rope uphill. And now our feeling is we're chasing a snowball downhill. So there's traction; there's momentum. There's more and more farmers doing this. We're getting clusters of farmers doing this. The ag, press is doing an exemplary job of keeping this in the forefront of farmers’ minds.

There's more and more workshops and opportunities, including things like the Midwest Soil Health Summit all the time. There's resources online that are available, and in print. And that gives us a lot of hope and a lot of encouragement. Most days now I feel like I'm playing catch up; I'm chasing to catch up. And that's a great place to be. That shows we've got traction, we've got momentum. Things are moving forward. And, yeah, we're seeing farmers get very excited about this stuff. They get their neighbors excited and then they want to become part of this really grass roots movement and move forward.

MM: That is really good news for all of us. Farmers need something to get excited and happy about.

Kent Solberg. They do. I've had farmers in the last year…you know, 2019 was such a difficult crop year. Harvest was horrible for many farmers. And a lot still aren’t even done yet. There’s still crops and the people that need to get harvested and it’s just been extremely difficult, extremely stressful. Several of them have told me that “if it wasn't for this field that I was working on to really implement soil health principles; to watch that field just come alive,’ and the enjoyment they got out of that, and the excitement they got out of that, they said ‘we would have been ready to hang it up.’  But this has given them hope and encouragement. They see a path forward and they just want accelerate that.

MM: We don't talk about this a lot, but you own a farm yourself, Seven Pines Farm in Verndale. [Link to video] Do you use these principles on your farm?

Kent Solberg: Absolutely. And we have for 20, over 20 years. I just watch in amazement; what we see on our own farm and where we've come from. Because of that - because we've been working on it for a long time and we've made our share of mistakes - we can use that learning to help accelerate farmers move forward with this process. So if they don't have to repeat the same mistakes it won't take them as long to get as far as we've got.

MM: The Midwest Soil Health Summit just typically fills right up. Who should be thinking about attending and how do they sign up?

Kent Solberg: If you're a farmer of any size, I'd encourage you to attend. There's something for you. If you've got cattle, if you've got crops, if you've got livestock - even if you've got a garden - just to come in here and hear people like Jon Stika speak. To sign up, just go to SFA dash MN dot org. Click on the event tab and then scroll down to Midwest Soil Health Summit and there'll be a registration link there.

MM: SFA stands for Sustainable Farming Association. Kent, we'll have that link up on our website soon and we'll have a link to the registration page. Anything you want to add?

Kent Solberg: I just encourage farmers out there. There are options. There are alternatives. There is hope. Talk to your neighbors. There's lots of resources available. Go to the SFA website, stop in your NRCS office. There's the new Minnesota Soil Health Coalition that’s formed. There's lots of help. There's lots of resources out there. Reach out. Go to workshops. The calendar’s jammed full of workshops over the next few weeks across the state of Minnesota. Take in what you can, learn what you can, connect with somebody who can mentor you and coach you through this. And just be willing to move forward.

Kent Solberg, one of the founders of the Midwest Soil Health Summit. He is Livestock and Grazing Specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota.

Find out how to register for the Midwest Soil Health Summit here.