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AFT and NRCS sign $2M agreement for soil health practices


American Farmland Trust and the Natural Resources Conservation Service have signed a two-year, $2 million cooperative agreement to further develop and improve AFT’s soil health, economic, and environmental tools.

Programs will be improved with the most up-to-date soil health practice outcomes economics and environmental data and analysis and expanded to serve additional crops, and, eventually, additional soil health practices and production systems, such as grazing operations.  AFT will also create a Soil Health Economics Accelerator Team, expanding the existing team by hiring five new staff including economists and soil scientists.  

With the understanding that regenerative farming and ranching practices help improve water resources, address the climate challenge, and increase the resiliency of the U.S. agricultural system, practitioners from the NRCS, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, University Extension, NGOs, farm trade associations, and corporate sustainability leaders find it urgent to expand their ability to assist clients by analyzing the economic return on investment of soil health practices like cover crops, no-till, reduced tillage, nutrient management, mulching, conservation cover and composting.  

The programs slated for development include:

  • Retrospective Soil Health Economic Calculator (R-SHEC)
  • Predictive Soil Health Economic Calculator (P-SHEC)
  • Online-Soil Health Economic Calculator (O-SHEC)

Improving adoption rates

Adoption rates for these practices are still relatively low. For example, as of 2017, cover crops had been adopted on only six percent of harvested annual cropland. A key barrier is farmers’ concern over their bottom line. Addressing these concerns with the best available data, rigorous analysis, and credible insights will serve to scale up adoption more quickly. 

“Since 2018, AFT has worked with the NRCS to develop the Soil Health Case Study Tool Kit, using it to demonstrate that the benefits of implementing agricultural soil health practices can outweigh the costs and over time, improve productivity and profitability in farming operations,” said Michelle Perez, AFT’s Water Initiative Director. “For the 13 ‘soil health successful’ producers we’ve analyzed and featured in case studies so far, their adoption of soil health practices has led to a return on investment (ROI) between 7 percent and 343 percent for row crop farmers and 198 percent and 553 percent for the almond growers. We hope that expanding our suite of soil health economic and environmental tools will help bring economic benefits to more farmers and greater environmental benefits to society.” 

This agreement comes at an opportune time. “AFT will leverage the power of the economic information made available by this team to accelerate the impact of multiple Climate Smart Commodity Projects that are also being awarded in the coming months,” noted Bianca Moebius-Clune, AFT’s Climate Initiative Director, “and vice versa we’ll be looking to leverage data from these expansive projects to further improve the capacity of the calculators to predict the economic value to producers of adopting soil health management systems.” 

Specifically, the AFT and NRCS will work in partnership to improve the quantitative relationship between crop yield, soil organic matter and soil health practices in the predictive tool, so the tool can project potential, future benefits to crop yield, soil fertility and available water holding capacity, key benefits to incentivize soil health practice adoption.  

AFT will release the P-SHEC Tool to the public for the first time after piloting the tool with “soil health curious” farmers. The retrospective tool (R-SHEC) will be improved to better incorporate  diversification in crop rotations and expanded to include more crops and soil health practices. The R-SHEC Tool is used to develop the Soil Health Case Studies featuring “soil health successful” producers, 13 of which have been produced so far and are being used as outreach and educational materials to answer questions about the rate of return on investments in soil health.  

The online tool (O-SHEC), which is simpler and intended for direct use by farmers and their advisors, will be finalized, piloted and released to the public for the first time.  This tool is key to accelerating farmer decision making, helping to evaluate costs and benefits of soil health practice adoption options more easily. 

In addition to improving, piloting and releasing these tools, AFT and NRCS will expand the portfolio of soil health case studies to feature six to 12 new “soil health successful” farmers each year using the R-SHEC Tool.  We will prioritize the location of these farmer case studies depending on conservation partner needs, identifying states where large environmental benefits could be realized from soil health practice adoption and to better serve historically underrepresented producer populations. 

healthy soil
Image by TanaCh, Shutterstock

AFT is hiring now to build the Soil Health Economics Accelerator Team

Job postings are out and new team members are expected to start November 7 or December 5, 2022 or earlier if suitable candidates are found sooner. The following positions are available:

  • Economic Tools Development Manager / Senior Agricultural Economist – A senior level agricultural economist, who will conduct and lead research, in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team across AFT, to further develop AFT’s three existing economic tools.
  • Economic Tools Development Agricultural Economist – Reporting to the Economic Tools Development Manager, this position will conduct research and further develop AFT’s three existing economic tools and serve as a reviewing economist for AFT’s soil health economic case studies.
  • Economic Tools Development Soil Health Scientist – Reporting to the Economic Tools Development Manager, this senior level position will provide leadership to further research and develop the tools, in collaboration with the existing interdisciplinary team.  In addition, the person will lead research initiatives to investigate additional quantitative relationships between soil health practices, SOM and other soil health indicators with water quality, water quantity, climate and biodiversity indicators.
  • Two Soil Health Case Study Conservation Agronomists – These two identical positions will write at least three to six case studies each per year over two years featuring “soil health successful” producers and generate associated education and outreach materials for partners to use to help persuade “soil health curious” producers to adopt soil health practices.  These people will also collaborate on the interdisciplinary team to further advance the soil health economic tools suite.  Both people will report to AFT’s existing Agricultural Economics and Water Resources Manager who leads our production of case studies and is the lead developer of the R-SHEC Tool. 
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