These are exciting times. We now have simple farming practices that fit on every farm. They move beyond just conservation of soil and water resources to actually re-create functioning soil and water systems. The practices aren’t new but a re-branding of soil-conservation practices. They are a re-focusing on the importance of the biological aspect of the soil.

In the introduction to the book “Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management” Fred Magdoff and Harold Van Es say there has been a renewed interest in the study and application of soil health. The practice has roots to the 17th century when John Evelyn wrote about the importance of topsoil.

For the past 20 years I have been working in Wisconsin agriculture, many of those years on soil and water conservation. The practices used to meet conservation goals have not gone far enough to protect our soil and water resources. Magdoff and Van Es say the United Nations estimates that about 2.5 billion acres around the world have been affected by soil erosion since 1945. The total amount of agricultural land has been decreasing for the past few decades.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has identified practices to improve soil health by following four principles.

  • Minimize disturbance.
  • Maximize soil cover.
  • Maximize biodiversity.
  • Maximize continuous living roots.

Many people working in soil health advocate a fifth principle – incorporating animals into the production system. Those practices dramatically improve soil function, increase water infiltration – sometimes in the matter of just one season – and reduce the need for chemical inputs. Farms are incorporating soil-health practices and starting to see the benefits. Check with a Natural Resource Conservation Service office or land-conservation department for examples.

There’s also the economic benefit to the farm that starts with reducing tillage. Retired University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural agent Ted Bay presented this past fall a partial budget analysis comparing conventional tillage and no-till practices. It showed farms can save $19 per acre by keeping tillage equipment and $31 per acre by trading in tillage equipment. Those numbers are for a specific farm but they point to a large economic advantage to no-till. All farmers can use a partial budget analysis to evaluate the economic impacts of any practice on the farm.

Farming has traditionally been an entrepreneurial endeavor. When we look at farms that are implementing soil-health practices, both healthy functioning soil systems and healthy functioning economic systems return results quickly. Ray Archuleta is a former Natural Resource Conservation Service soil-health specialist. He said recently farmers are finding that along with diversifying their cropping systems – which heals the soil system – they can also diversify their enterprises. That will heal the economics of their farm.

In his essay “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” Aldo Leopold wrote, “Conservation means harmony between men and land. When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land – when both end up better by reason of their partnership – we have conservation.”

Most farmers I know love their land. Now with soil-health practices they have the tools to protect their soils and their farms.

Randy Zogbaum is the faculty director for the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and agriculture instructor for Madison Area Technical College. He has developed and teaches the college’s new Agriculture Systems Management program.

He’s collaborating with colleagues from across the college to develop professional-development workshops for farmers through the institute. Zogbaum fuses more than 20 years of experience in Wisconsin agriculture with his teaching. He holds both a master’s and bachelor’s degree in soil science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a former UW-Extension agriculture agent in Columbia County, the agriculture-education director for the Wisconsin Technical College System, and has also served as a soil- and water-quality specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He lives in Sauk City with his wife, son and dog. Visit madisoncollege.edu/institute-sustainable-agriculture for more information.