Visit Jason and Misty Lay’s corn and soybean farm outside Bloomington, Ill., and it just may look like Earth Day all year long. They’re among a growing number of farmers adopting modern sustainable ag practices, including cover crops, reduced tillage, waterways and terraces. The techniques help restore soil health, one of our nation’s best opportunities to sequester carbon and improve water quality, while protecting against the threats of climate change.
“My goal is to leave this land better than when I took it over, so conservation has to be in the forefront of everything we do,” Jason Lay said. “We’re in a watershed area, so water quality and nitrate management are key. You have to stay ahead of changes coming to farming practices, and learn at a fast pace to stay at the head of the pack.”
A third-generation family farmer, Lay left the corporate world to return to farming full-time in 2003. His agricultural values led him to the Soil Health Partnership, an innovative research effort that hopes to show U.S. farmers how sustainability through soil health can also lead to increased profitably.
“This is a very important subject in ag, and how we’re perceived outside of ag,” Lay said. “Can we truly move the needle, and is it cost-effective? Can we make this more mainstream? Hopefully the metrics we observe through the Soil Health Partnership will help these practices spread across the Corn Belt.”
This is the largest on-farm, farmer-led soil health research project of its kind, said Nick Goeser, SHP director. The organization just began its fourth year identifying, testing and measuring farm management practices that include:
- Growing cover crops to improve water infiltration, prevent erosion and prevent nutrient losses,
- Implementing conservation tillage like no-till or strip-till to improve aggregate stability and soil structure, and
- Using advanced, science-based nutrient management techniques to ensure nutrients end up in the crops and to reduce loss to air and water.
Increased testing is one of the biggest improvements Jason has made in his farming practices, he said. “Testing soil and stalk nitrate levels is a really critical step that I wish more farmers would take,” Lay said. “It’s how you can be better-aware of any issues that may be developing that you may need to address.”
He also uses Variable Rate Technology to precisely target what his soil needs in nutrients and when. “It’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for crop yields and return on investment,” Lay said.
A farmer-led initiative of the National Corn Growers Association, recent financial commitments from organizations and companies with common interests in sustainability through soil health have made it possible for SHP to expand to 100 farms a full year ahead of schedule.
“The effort and enthusiasm of our farmers is incredible, in both the new ones and those who have been with us since the beginning,” Goeser said. “We saw much more interest from farmers wanting to enroll with us than we had spots to fill. It demonstrates the tremendous interest our nation’s farmers have in this effort.”