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Call the doctor, this dirt needs help: Local farmers will play key role in new healthy soils initiative

Clean water depends on healthy soil — soil that supports plant growth and can absorb, hold and filter water.

Healthy soil, in turn, depends on how people manage the land.

Aiming to improve soil health in Minnesota, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center have committed to expanding the science of soil health and sharing practical information with farmers, conservationists and others who manage the state's soils.

Creating healthier soil is really pretty simple: put more organic material into it. For farmers, that means leaving crop stubble in the ground or planting cover crops after they harvest their cash crops.

"In many cases they can plant right into the stubble without removing the tillage. It makes for healthier soil, which holds water longer in the spring and fall," said John Jaschke, executive director of BWSR.

The idea is to leave crop stubble or plant cover crops to provide fresh organic materials for farmland every year. "That material becomes part of the soil and it can reduce the need for fertilizer," he said. "It also has a big water quality benefit."

That kind of land management is common in the central states like Indiana, but is not commonly practiced in Minnesota, he said.

Healthy soils are good for agriculture "because you can grow more—the addition of nutrients is a good thing for growing crops."

The public benefit is that healthy soil absorbs much more nutrients and also holds water better, "so we don't have things going downstream so quickly," he said.

Thinking for the long term and aiming towards healthier soil, BWSR and WRC just announced a new collaborative program, the Minnesota Office for Soil Health.

The program will help build local expertise (often with the local Soil and Water Conservation District staff) to promote soil health and soil and water conservation.

The focus will be on research and outreach to expand the tools and skills of Minnesota's local conservation-delivery community, as well as understanding the economic impacts of land-applied soil and water management practices.

The goal is to protect and improve soil resources and water quality by developing the knowledge and abilities of local conservationists, farmers and their advisers.

"Both water quality and agricultural production can be enhanced by innovative soil management practices that result in economic and environmental benefits. This new partnership with the University of Minnesota will deliver applied research and technology to on-farm practices to assure that one of Minnesota's critical natural assets, its soil, is well-managed for generations to come," said Jaschke.

"We continue to understand more about soil health as a foundation for thriving farms and quality water resources. This initiative will serve as a conduit that connects the latest soil health research to develop solutions and tools for Minnesota producers, their advisers, and conservation professionals," added Jeff Peterson, University of Minnesota Water Resources Center Director.

Key components of the Minnesota Office for Soil Health include:

• Building knowledge of the importance of soil health in achieving the state's goals for clean water

• Strengthening networks for sharing information

• Conducting tillage, cover crop, and erosion surveys to measure our progress

• Building workforce technical capacity through training and professional development

• Developing conservation tools and analyzing watershed health impacts and cost effectiveness of soil health practices

Program activities will be guided and advised by a leadership group consisting of university and state staff along with key stakeholders including the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The University of Minnesota is now conducting a nationwide search for the person to lead the new office, a position that is expected to be filled by early spring, Jaschke said.