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Building Healthy Soils in Minnesota

Kent Solberg
Kent Solberg

We caught up with Kent Solberg on the road, as he was traveling to one of a series of Café Chats with farmers around the state this week and next—to prepare people for the Midwest Soil Health Summit. The summit is Tuesday March 12, 2019 at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter. Kent is a co-founder of the summit. His job title is Livestock and Grazing Specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association of MN.

At its base, Kent says, healthy soil is “about the biology of the soil. Soil function, which is another name for soil health, is the ability of the soil to capture and store water and also to cycle nutrients. When we have the carbon, the nitrogen, the phosphorous, the water cycle all working well it can be a real boon for farmers and for everybody else.”

“From an ag perspective…it’s about taking away some of the risk during weather extremes, whether it’s drought or too much moisture. It really helps buffer all of that. We’re hearing more from farmers all the time—who are working toward soil health—who find out that the weather extremes just don’t have as big an impact on their crops.”

Kent says the original soils of the country have probably degraded over time. “Unfortunately there is a long history in agriculture of it being tillage-based. That was our primary methodology of weed control. I don’t know that we really understood until the last decade or so, what was going on in this ecosystem that’s under our feet. And it truly is that. In a small handful of soil there’s billions of living organisms. But when we use monocultures; when we use tillage; when we overuse things like tillage; when we overuse input—even things like manure—it can be detrimental to those soil microbes.  Now we’re encouraging and working on practices that help producers reduce those inputs; reduce those costs, and build a home for those microbes in the soil.

“It comes down to applying a set of 5 principles or tenets. Those are: keep the soil covered, keep a living root in the soil (because that’s where most of the biological activity happens), minimizing soil disturbance whether that’s physical or chemical disturbance, and if there is disturbance, following it with adequate rest. Supporting biodiversity, and doing that through a variety of crops using a variety of plants—using things like cover crops to help build that diversity in between cash or food crops can go a long way.

“And the 5th one we’re finding out is really, really important, and that’s integration of animals or integration of livestock. There’s no natural system out there that does not have animals as part of the system. We’re finding that we integrate animals into agriculture, into the soil, in a managed way—it just can’t be a free-for-all—it can have huge positive benefits.”

Kent admits that “it’s a challenge for farmers” to make a switch in methods. “We’ve been headed in one direction in agriculture for several decades now, and it’s been highly productive. I mean, our yields are extremely high, yields beyond what people probably even envisioned 50, 60, 70 years ago. But at the same time, like everything else, there’s trade-offs and it came with a cost. Now to make this switch requires farmers to think in a different way. We do have farmers doing that all across Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

“I work with producers from the Iowa/Minnesota border all the way up to near Lake of the Woods. They’re making these shifts, they’re making these changes. It’s usually one step at a time. We try and provide a lot of information and educational opportunities for producers throughout the year. There’s a lot of good information if you know where to look—on the internet, in this information age we have—and then there are people who can provide some one-on-one assistance. As we develop producers in areas who are experienced in this, they start to become mentors and coaches for their friends and neighbors and other family members who are interested.

“But it’s really changing one heart and one mind at a time to move this direction, because it is change, and change is difficult for us as people, whether you’re a farmer or somebody in town. We tend to want to do things the way we did it yesterday if it worked for us. It’s easy, we have a frame of reference there, and we want to keep doing it that way. This does require some change, but there’s really a host of good tools and information.

“Now, do we have the answer in every situation? Absolutely not! There’s too many variables involved. There’s so many people trying, and farmers innovating different things. Really, this whole soil health thing started as a grassroots movement from farmers and by farmers. So government programs, the universities, are really playing catch-up in a lot of this stuff. Farmers are known for being creative, innovative and resourceful. The ones who really latch on to these principles are moving forward with some really neat tools and ideas on how to address this on their own farm.”

Livestock play a special role in building soils. “We’re finding just the sheer impact of having animals move across a piece of land, even for a short period of time during the year, has a huge impact on that. It’s the action of the hooves of things like cattle or sheep. You know historically, in North America here, we had somewhere between 60 and 120 million bison from coast to coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. And we probably had about the same number of elk, and there’s even reason to believe pronghorn antelope were around in millions and millions of animals, three-, four-, five-hundred years ago.

“Those animals and their movement, their grazing, even the milk foam dripping off the calf’s mouth as it was nursing, and hair being shed off these animals, fed that microbial system. We don’t have that in a lot of our ag systems anymore, but by using livestock we can replace a lot of that. Historically we’ve known the value of manure in cropping systems, whether you’re a home gardener or a large commercial farmer—you understand the value of that. But it’s the animal’s impact also. Now that can’t be everyday all the time; there needs to be periods of rest in there too. So it’s really an art and a science of managing how those animals are on that landscape for that period of time. We’re seeing absolutely huge benefits from that.

In the full audio interview below, Kent also discusses organic matter and carbon in soils, sequestering carbon in soil, the things home gardeners can do to improve the soil (including keeping chickens), some history of the Midwest Soil Health Summit, and talks about his own farm.

The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota held the first Midwest Soil Health Summit seven years ago. Kent invited anyone to attend this year’s event—including farmers, vegetable producers, backyard gardeners, and policy makers. “What happens on the landscape influences so much of the rest of our lives. Whether that’s reducing flooding or improving water quality, or even the quality and healthful benefits of our food; the nutrient density of our food.”

The link to register for the Midwest Soil Health Summit is here: https://sfamn.z2systems.com/np/clients/sfamn/eventRegistration.jsp?event=212&