reThink soil
The Nature Conservancy's Soil Health Roadmap outlines 10 key steps to achieve widespread adoption of adaptive soil health systems.

ST. LOUIS — As director of working lands at the Nature Conservancy, Michael Doane left behind a 16-plus-year career with one of America’s corporate giants, Monsanto Co., to see if he can make a difference in the battle for sustainable agriculture and a healthier planet from the vantage point of the non-profit sector.

He has landed as the project leader on of one of the largest — if not, the largest — environmental initiatives ever undertaken by the Conservancy: a program called reThink Soil, a Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health, that hopes to do nothing less than revolutionize the way farmers conserve the quality and resiliency of their soil through cutting back on tillage, making use of cover crops and engaging in considered crop rotation. General Mills, Inc. has underwritten the project, and several other agricultural organizations are also involved in advisory roles.

The vision and goals of reThink Soil are anything but modest. The Nature Conservancy said its Soil Health Roadmap outlines 10 key steps spanning science, the economy and policy priorities to achieve widespread adoption of adaptive soil health systems on more than 50% of U.S. cropland by 2025.

Michael Doane, Nature Conservancy

“Drawing upon respected analyses in soil health literature, The Nature Conservancy estimates the annual societal and environmental costs of the status quo are up to $85.1 billion annually through unintended effects on human health, property, energy, endangered species, loss of biodiversity, eutrophication, contamination, agriculture productivity, and resilience,” the non-profit organization said, explaining its focus on improving soil health.

“Adaptive management for soil health means minimizing soil disturbance while optimizing plant diversity, allowing more continuous plant and residue covers to create vital, living ecosystems in the soil. In turn, the soil nurtures a complex web of microbes with the healthiest soils often being those with the greatest diversity and abundance of life. Healthy soil more efficiently stores and recycles carbon, water, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous,” said the Nature Conservancy, which emphasized that good science backs the soil management practices being highlighted by reThink Soils.

Mr. Doane told Milling & Baking News his move to a non-profit environmental organization from his previous job at a Fortune 500 corporation offers him the opportunity to deepen his involvement in conservation, a personal interest he has had since childhood.

reThink soil
The reThink Soil, a Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health program hopes to revolutionize the way farmers conserve the quality and resiliency of their soil.

“I have always been interested in conservation, starting by growing up on a farm and studying environmental issues in college and, actually, a lot of the work I did in the private sector was aligned with that interest,” he said. “The Conservancy really came at a time when I was open to trying to think about where I could make a greater contribution on the issues that I felt were most at my core.

“It just felt like a good time to join the Conservancy’s mission and bring the expertise that I’ve developed in the last 20 years working in the private sector, With the reThink Soil initiative, we’ve developed a strategy as a test case for the question of how do we scale up and have much greater conservation impact across the U.S. agricultural landscape. The U.S. is the first strategy among a few more we could see having an impact at this scale, he said.

He said the Nature Conservancy also is considering expanding its soil-health initiative to other parts of the world, including Latin America, Africa, India and China.

“We’ll be testing the idea of whether reThink Soils can have an international focus,” Mr. Doane noted.

 Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, nutrient strategy manager at the Nature Conservancy and a farmer in Ohio, said  her somewhat tradition-minded farmer father has gotten on board with the recommendations of reThink Soils, in part because a personal crop adviser was able to guide her father through the how-to’s of improving his soil’s health. This was despite initially being skeptical of the additional up-front costs from $30 to $45 an acre incurred when planting cover crops after staple crops such as corn and soybeans have already been harvested.

“It is an added cost and I don’t want to downplay any farmer’s decision not to plant cover crops because of the cost but I think, if a farmer really is in it for the long-run … they’re going to make their money back,” she said. “I really feel that farmers with the longer view are probably going to make out better because of their paying attention to their soil.”

Mr. Doane echoed the sentiment that working on soil health may have bottom-line benefits for producers.

“What has inspired our focus on soil is that we think it can be economically beneficial for farmers,” he said. “That’s what makes it special. Farms today are small businesses. And some are not even small businesses. They’re actually large, sophisticated businesses by almost any measure. They’re businesses, nevertheless, and they have to recoup investments and turn a profit. By our estimation, there is a very positive r.o.i. associated with the investment in soil health that we recommend.”

Ms. Vollmer-Sanders emphasized that reThink Soils wasn’t designed to create a confrontational atmosphere between environmental concerns and agriculture.

“At the Nature Conservancy, we like to be the ‘and’ solution: environmental and agricultural, so when we’re looking for people to fill different roles in the agricultural arena, it’s good to have a background in agriculture; it’s good to understand the industry and come at it with a ‘how can we do both together’ — how can we help the environment and keep agriculture” healthy, she said.  

The Nature Conservancy has said its plans include soil health becoming the leading indicator of economic and environment outcomes on more than 50% of farms by 2025. One of the fundamental pushes in that direction is coming from the threat of climate change to agricultural productivity at a time when the world’s population is continuing to grow, hitting an expected nine billion by 2050.

“The models show that food production will be more challenging in several significant breadbaskets around the world,” Mr. Doane said. “Improving soil health could provide a solution.”

But not all farmers are in agreement about how urgent the need is to combat climate change, he pointed out. Interestingly, a key to the Nature Conservancy’s position on soil health is that it is not necessary for farmers to buy into the threat of climate change in order to see benefits to their land.

“While the Nature Conservancy isn’t confused about our stance on climate change and the threat of it as it applies to our mission to protect nature and people, we aren’t focused on convincing farmers on this point,” he said. “Relative to soils, we feel there is a fairly simple business proposition for them, which is, by improving soil management and managing in a way where healthy soils will actually sequester and cycle carbon more efficiently, they can earn a greater return.”

Climate change acceptance isn’t the only issue designers of reThink are facing. Another problem is the high percentage of farmers who lease their land and who may require permission from an absentee landlord to engage in practices designed to improve soil quality.

“Fifty per cent of the land out there is leased so it is not something we can ignore when managing land,” Ms. Vollmer-Sanders said. “We’ve talked with land management companies that are interested in learning more to make sure they are helping both sides make the right decision. We’ve been on that side of it. There are a lot of different companies, and extension services have even gone out and reached out to the absentee landowners.”

She said the program may need to educate landlords about why a producer may plant weeks or a crop in the fall. Or she cited needs to meet with management companies that may be owners of thousands of acres.

These different issues gather urgency when the scenario of growing enough food for the burgeoning world population later this century.

“We need to produce more food on the acres that we have,” Ms. Vollmer-Sanders said. “At the same time, we don’t want to cut down any more rain forests or destroy more of the Prairie, so we want to do more with the land that we have.”

She said certified crop advisors work with groups of farmers to inform them about what to do to improve their soil health.

One of the benefits she sees is the fact that fields sown with cover crops communicate health to observers driving the back roads through agricultural areas of the United States.

“Cover crops are very visual,” she said. “People who drive through see green landscapes and that is a completely vision than what you might see now, which is brown dirt in the winter and fall.

“They can’t see soil health. They don’t see whether the soil is healthy or not healthy, but they can see that the landscape is green.”