Attending a field day on soil health recently, held at the Roger Wenning farm, Greensburg, Jane Hardisty, Indiana state soil conservationist, summed up the reason for the meeting during an interview with media during a break. The field day wasn't billed as a no-till or cover crop field day, although both topics were certainly on the agenda. Instead, it was billed as a soil health workshop, one of several that have been held with the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local soil and water conservation districts recently.
"We've kind of come back to where we started," says Hardisty, an Indiana native with more than three decades of service to NRCS, the past several years as the state leader of NRCS. "We're getting back to the basics, which is the soil."
For many years, farm bill issues, such as highly erodible land and swampbuster took precedence, she notes. In some cases, some well-meaning conservation people took the eye off the ball. While individual practices, such as grass waters, water and sediment control basins, and filter strips, are all good practices, they need to be part of a system, not an answer by themselves, Hardisty insists.
Her view is that landowners and farmers need farm plans, but the plans need to include such things as how the health of the soil will be maintained. In many cases, that boils down to the use of cover crops, not only to protect soil but to recover nitrogen in the fall that would otherwise be lost and become a problem to someone else, plus the use of reduced tillage, preferably no-till.
Practices like filter strips can't resolve all conservation issues if the land on both side of the filter strips is moldboard plowed, for example. The filter strip may help keep some sediment out of the creek, but it's been likened to putting a diaper on a much more serious problem. The real challenge is building back the basic soil, and increasing organic matter. That takes a commitment to a plan. Often, that will include judicious use of the right cover crop that fits your farm, plus no-till.
Expect more district conservationists and other NRCS planners and employees to be talking in these terms in the future. Individual practices, such as filter strips and waterways, will still be available for cost-share. But the real emphasis, Hardisty says, will be on a big picture approach.