An Educational Series On Soil Health Management Practices And Realities Straight From Farmers And Experts

Stories from the soil

Soil health is a hot topic, and for good reason. Soils are one of our most vital resources and we must give them the attention they deserve. The goal of Stories From The Soil is to advance the collaborative and innovative soil health efforts occurring across the United States by sharing the soil management practices of leading growers, researchers, and land stewards. There has been tremendous progress in recent years in better understanding the importance of soil health practices to provide agricultural and horticultural productivity and sustainability. Follow along as we tell these stories and learn more about the soil beneath our feet.

Series Finale EPISODE 10 - The Future of Soil Health

After travelling the country and hearing from 9 different expert farmers, land stewards, and researchers, Tim Hammerich explains his key takeaways and soil health learnings. For Tim, the future of agriculture in the U.S. is bright. Hammerich reflects on the journey of exploring soil health and the common practices that translate across farms, crops, regions, and soil types coupled with the new, innovative approaches that are pushing sustainable agriculture forward.

EPISODE 9 - A Lifetime of No-Till

What can cause two identical fields to produce different yields despite being farmed the same for 50 years? In this Stories From the Soil episode, hear from North Dakota farmer, Joe Breker, about how history can leave a lasting impact on your soil’s health and its ability to produce quality crop yields. Breker, a no-till farming pioneer dives into the details of conservation agriculture techniques (including no till, cover crops, composting and manure usage, and more) and their impact on soybean and other crop productivity. 

EPISODE 8 - Tools of the Trade

Farmers are being asked to grow more food on less acres on soils that are sometimes depleted. In this episode of Stories From the Soil we will learn how organic farmers are relying on age old techniques and new technologies to accomplish this without sacrificing the level of agricultural sustainability that we have enjoyed for centuries. Hear from Don Perry, Organic Specialist at J.R. Simplot, on emerging technologies and next-generation tools that growers are implementing in organic farming practices. Don explains that productivity and sustainability begins in the soil and how building a healthy soil foundation is integral to sustainable and profitable farming.

EPISODE 7 - Next Gen Farming

How do you determine and implement a game plan for optimizing soil health in land that has been sitting vacant for over 10 years? In this episode we’ll hear from two generations of organic farmers about how they combine conservation tillage with soil testing technology to build and verify healthy soils. For the Morales’ operation, productivity and crop quality start in the soil. Their innovative techniques combine next-generation farming tools with hard learned lessons from the past to improve the physical, chemical, and biological properties of their soils in the central California region.

EPISODE 6 - Soil in the city

Beyond the farm fields, we often forget about soil health right under our feet in cities and urban areas. No where is this more apparent than the Big Apple, where the NYC Parks and Recreation team is working to ensure their soils can sustain growth in the concrete jungle. This weeks episode takes us to New York City to meet with Nave Strauss, Director of Street Trees Planting, with the New York City Parks and Recreation department. Learn from Nave on how optimizing soil health with carbon based materials improves tree quality for greater societal benefit.

EPISODE 5 - Against the Grain

Being a pioneer is not easy and takes a lot of courage, especially as farmers in agriculture. After visiting John Herrmann’s no-till farming operation in Haxtun, CO, it gave me new perspective on how some farmers must overcome critical voices when adopting soil health methods that are viewed as being ‘against the grain.’ This episode from stories from the soil explores no till and cover crop techniques utilized to optimize acres. Farmer John Heermann describes his approach to building soil carbon in order to provide a habitat and nutrition for soil biology (microbes). Join the soil health movement and innovative agriculture technology working to improve farmers’ profitability and sustainability.

EPISODE 4 - Carbon: A Buried Treasure

There is some controversy about whether you can actually increase carbon in soils in certain growing regions.

In this episode, we’ll hear about how farmers and researchers in California are teaming up to flip the script on our conventional thinking. This is not easy. This is different. This is new. There’s a lot at stake here, frankly.

There’s a lot of research out there about soil health and a ton of technical information, but none of it does us any good unless we can see how it actually takes place at the ground level.

My name is Tim Hammerich from the Future of Agriculture Podcast.

Cool Planet and I are gonna travel the country and capture stories about how

land stewards, and growers, and farmers are actually developing their own soil health, and how that impacts their lives and the food they’re growing for you.

This week’s episode takes us to Five Points, California where I met up with veteran farmer John Diener and UC Davis extension specialist Dr. Jeff Mitchell.

Part of the goal in creating these healthy soils is to see what it is that

we can do to enhance that. In an effort to express that, it has something to do with the amount of tillage that goes on in the soil.

And so in your decision making, then will you look at the field and say, boy, it’s been tilled every year so maybe we want to plant something that we can go in with a crop right behind it.

Would that reduce tillage or?
– We do that, yes.

So we as farmers have to determine what particular crop marries up with a secondary crop coming behind it, right.

So one crop that might have a lot of trash or residue left on the soil surface may not be acceptable to the succeeding crop, ’cause that material, if it doesn’t totally decompose, gets involved in the processing of the next crop’s crop.

What we’re doing here with Jeff in working cooperatively with the extension service here is looking at different styles of tillage. You can see there’s one with no tillage and some with minimum tillage, and then there’s some

with maximum tillage.

Through that process, they’ve been evaluating the soil building that comes

from this technique, right?

And over time and actually trying to keep the productivity of the soil up, and keep the amount of tractor work and the diesel and greenhouse gases that

come from tillage, down.

Dr. Mitchell then walked me through his soil health strategies and explained the importance of having carbon in the soil. There’s a lot of controversy about whether you can actually increase carbon in soils that are in a region like the San Joaquin Valley. It’s very hot in the summertime, it’s irrigated so there’s water available to the micro-organisms, and the dogma is frankly,

that you can just blow off and burn off all the carbons you’re gonna try to stay in the soil and never increase carbon.

To the dedicated effort of reducing disturbance and also adding cover crops,

we’d seen carbon in this soil go from about 0.7% to about 1.5%. So it doesn’t sound like a lot, but that carbon probably is helping a number of soil functions, including the infiltration and the movement of water.

Obviously, farming is a business, and so many of these practices have to be economically viable for a farmer to incorporate that. But putting that aside, for you, you’re obviously very passionate about what you do. What’s at stake here, in your mind, as far as what kind of keeps you motivated, because you feel this work is important?

What we’re trying to do is look well into the future, and try to anticipate the kinds of improved performance systems that might be useful for a variety of reasons. Reduced disturbance of the soil, reduced tillage. We’re trying to keep the soil covered, to protect the surface of the soil. We’re also trying to enhance biology, the soil life, and also the life of different crops that are above this soil and growing in the soil there.

So those are three principles that we’re trying to pursue in this very field here, and we’d been at this now for 19 years, so pretty near 20 years. And we’ve seen some dramatic changes in a lot of different things, including economics. The systems that reduce operations are cheaper, obviously.

We’ve also seen dramatic changes in soil properties and soil function. And by that, I mean what we’ve tried to do is deliberately add organic matter in the form of offseason or winter cover crops, that capture sunlight in the winter, free carbon, so to speak. And then when that carbon is turned over into the soil, we leave it on the surface as you can see right here.

And eventually that organic matter gets taken into the soil, by soil micro-organisms, and they start eating that carbon and the organic matter, and they start working in the soil to pull the soil together.

You can see evidence of earthworms here, you can see this is a very well-structured, aggregated, very porous soil that holds water quite well here. So these are some of the benefits we’re looking at in addition to just getting

the crop produced here.

What effective ways are there to help inspire more farmers to think about this way, and maybe adopt more of these practices?

This is perhaps one of the most, if not the most exciting frontiers for farming, is soil biology. And there’s so much attention right now, from so many people and so many sectors and interests in this.

We have very, very much to learn, an immense amount to learn, but it’s an exciting time as well. It’s flat-out energizing to be part of this.

There is some controversy about whether you can actually increase carbon in soils in certain growing regions. In this weeks episode we will hear from farmers and researchers in the San Joaquin Valley of California who are teaming up to flip the script on our conventional thinking. Veteran farmer and soil health builder, John Diener, explains the impact reduced disturbance has had on his bottom line. Gain insight from Jeffrey Mitchell, PhD (Cropping Systems Specialist from UC Davis Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center) on the exciting new frontiers of the ground beneath our feet.

EPISODE 3 - Shifting Soil of the west

We know soils come in many different varieties, but after visiting Jay Hills operation in Del City, it gave me a whole new perspective of how widely soils can differ from field to field. How do you manage soil health when you have multiple soil types across your farm? Let’s hear from Jay to find out how he manages it all.

There’s a lot of research out there about soil health, and a ton of technical information. But none of it does us any good unless we can see how it actually takes place at the ground level. My name is Tim Hammerich, from the Future of Agriculture podcast. Cool Planet and I are going to travel the country and capture stories about how land stewards and growers and farmers are actually developing their own soil health and how that impacts their lives and the food they’re growing for you. This weeks episode takes us to the Texas-New Mexico border, where I met up with Jay Hill, co-owner of Hill Farms.
Tim: Hey Jay
Jay: Tim
Tim: Good to see ya
Jay: Welcome, man
Tim: Thanks for having us out here.
Jay: Absolutely.

So maybe start off by just kind of setting the scene. Where are we right now?

We are in beautiful Dell City, America. We’re in far West Texas–actually where we’re standing right here is on the New Mexico side. We’re in Otero County, New Mexico. But our farm encompasses both sides of the border here.

And so tell us just a high-level overview of your operation.

So, we’re a multi-faceted farm. We farm in two states, of course. We farm vegetables, onion seed, lettuce, pecans, and we do a lot of alfalfa, cotton, pinto beans, corn—just a little bit of everything.

Jay, would you mind showing us around a little bit?

Let’s get in the pick-up and go. (Alright.)

Tell us about the soil in this area.

Uniquely with this spot, in New Mexico, as we’re coming off of a Mesa, so we have a lot of gravel. If you go from the field we’re standing in now, which is starting to get into a sandy loam, even a gyp-y loam. There’s a lot of gypsum right underneath us. If we were to go back up the hill, we’d get into pea gravel and better water quality. So the further down we get into the valley, the worse our soil conditions get because we actually see that gyp coming up. Small amount of caliche rock and things like that. And then as you pull back out, you get back into more gravel and eventually you get into stone. (Wow)

And all of that within what kind of land mass?

I mean, from where we’re standing here, we could see six or seven different soil profiles within a mile. You know, you look at what we call a patty formation and when we do get rain, we want to have an inch of rain. Actually, this farm has only had a half inch rain since October of last year. But when it is mixed with water, this is exactly what happens. And so, it creates a cellular structure inside the dirt—it’s impenetrable. Finding a way, that’s not just using acid, is what we’re up against; is figuring out what kind of inputs we can use to actually break something that hard down (to change the structure).

So, what happens if you plant and then it gets wet and it forms that crust before it germinates?

It’s gone. (Gone?) You lose it. So like here, you can’t plant raw seed. You can’t just go out and plant alfalfa seed. What we have to do is we have to go in and plant a cover crop with that. And then the cover crop—you know, using like an oat or rye or wheat or something like that, which has got some good vigor—it’ll break that crust real quick and then you have alfa, and it’ll just follow it’s lead (right behind it). (Is that how you planted this, then?) Yes. (Wow) This was all in oats.

Is there a reason you started with alfalfa in this field?

Well they say, you know, alfalfa is a nitrogen fixer (yeah), and so we thought that it would be a good reason. And this was a pretty weed free block and so we though “hey this is not a bad, you know, a bad idea to go ahead and put this here. You go across the street, you know, we’ve got cotton over there; we have a lot of vine weed issues. We have a lot of Johnson grass, and things like that where we could take a GMO technology, clean that up for a couple years, and eventually head toward alfalfa. Alfalfa is our bread and butter out here.

Jay then took me to one of his cotton fields. Despite the short distance we traveled, I was amazed to see how different the soil was.

So, we’re at the extreme north end of the valley. And the biggest thing up here is, depending on where your positioned in the valley, is, depending on your water and your soil. Again, we’re coming off of a Mesa here, so out over here is what call a Mesa where everything plateaus, and over time, that gravel is eroded down into these valleys. And right in here is what we call the supreme dirt of the valley, and you can see it with just the cotton in itself. I’ve never grown cotton before but what I see, I like. And you look down into the plant, and I mean, it’s just loaded. (Yeah, look at all those bowls.) You’ve got all that fine gravel, you got a sand, you’ve got clay. For southwest farming, this is the dirt. When we came up here and saw this, I was like, “this is where we want to farm.” Soil moves daily, especially in the west. We worry about wind erosion. It’s a blessing we’re standing in a cotton field that’s as pretty as this one is. This was planted without a cover crop, we were running late, and we made a game time decision to slam the cotton in. And the wind hit us, and I knew we lost this field. You can look across from where we parked at and you can see where the road was, where the sand blew, and the cotton stunted. That’s changed my philosophy on soil. Cover crops is huge, you know, and cover crops—everybody acts like it’s something new, and it’s not. It’s, I mean, the way that people are tilling and stuff like that, yeah, that might be, but in the West, when you get in- we have three seasons. You know, we have summer, we have fall, we have winter, and we have wind. And when the wind hits, if you don’t have a way of keeping that soil from moving… And I’m learning that every year, you know I learned it, I learned it on the chin this year. But we’ve got to find ways to be able to, to keep our soil from moving.

Soil health in farming is, I mean, it’s at the forefront of everything because without soil, you don’t have anything. And so, as we look at our future, we have to plant crops with a map. And we have to sit down and we have to look at: okay, so this crop is going to do this for our soil, it’s going take these amendments to produce a healthy crop. At the same time we have to look at what’s the next one, then what’s the next one. So we, we try to stay seven years, you know, seven years is our rotation plan. If we’re looking at vegetable production, if we’re looking at, you know, cotton production, whatever it’s going to be, we have to make sure that soil can handle what we’re going to put on it. At the same time, somewhere in that process of seven years, I’m going spend two to three years doing nothing but trying to revitalize and try to help the root structure and help the soil structure of the next crop. So, I’m going be here for a long time–God willing–and so it that’s the case, then I want my soil to be here when we do.

We know soils come in many different varieties and types, but after seeing Jay Hill’s operation in Dell City, TX you’ll realize how many different forms of soil can exist! How do you manage soil health when multiple soil types exist? Jay Hill (@HillJay45) will shed light on the issue by describing the process he employs to revitalize and optimize soil health across his fields.

There’s Science in That Soil

Cover crops provide numerous soil health advantages including erosion prevention, improve soil structure, and increased organic matter. But does one size fit all? In this week’s episode we dig deeper with Dr. Abby Wick. I’m so excited for this episode, yeah. It’s going to be a good one.

There is a lot of research out there about soil health and a ton of technical information but none of it does us any good unless we can see how it actually takes place at the ground level. My name is Tim Hammerich from the Future of Agricultural podcast. Cool Planet and I are going to travel the country and capture stories about how land stewards and growers and farmers are actually developing their own soil health and how that impacts their lives and the food they’re growing for you.

This week’s episode takes us to Fargo, North Dakota where I met up with Doctor Abby Wick, renounced soil health expert with the North Dakota State University extension.

Tell us more about your role as a soil scientist, what is your role in working with farmers?

My job really is to listen to what the farmers are saying and the requests that they have for what we need to be doing on campus and then to take that to the researchers that we have, who are doing excellent work and have them do some of those research projects to take back to the farmer. Bringing researchers, bringing industry, bringing people like the NRCS soil conservation districts, bringing the farmers, bringing extension, bringing all of them to the table to figure out what we can do to solve a given issue.

How do farmers, in your perspective, how would you kind of sum up how farmers are looking at soil health?

A majority of the farmers that I work with are looking at it from a, I’m going to farm the land in sustainable way so that I can pass it on to my kids. So most of the farmers that I work with say if they’re not farming for themselves, they’re farming for the next generation so a lot of them are concerned about erosion, we have high wind erosion in the winter, especially with no snow pack some years and I don’t know a single farmer that likes seeing his soils blow away. That is really tough when that is your biggest investment on the farm.

As they are approaching these problems like erosion and trying to build the nutrient and water holding capacity what are the barriers to, I guess, improving that or what does that even look like, if I know my soil could be better and I want to improve it, you know, what is step one?

For me when I work with them is figuring out how to get your rotation right and where can you fit in things like cover crops into that rotation. We don’t even talk about reduced tillage or strip till or any of that kind of stuff until we figure out the cheaper part of it which is using covered crops or rotation.

Well let’s go get in some soil. (Okay.) Alright, where are we right now? Tell us about this field that we are standing in, this does not look like your typical North Dakota crop.

It’s doesn’t and so this was a wheat field and it was harvested maybe two three weeks ago and then a covered crop is planted out here so this farmer uses a concept called Bio Strip Tilling and I think it’s really cool because it’s not just blanketing the field with covered crops which is what it may look like it’s specifically seeding covered crops and rows in preparation for corn the next year and so when you look out here you can see that there are fava beans on 30 inch row spacing, you see a little bit lighter green and then if you skip over 15 inches on 30 inch row spacing you have radish, turnip and flax and so the goal on this is the fava is going to get to be really nice dark residue and it’s going to be fairly upright and it actually looks like strip till like spring, it will look like the soil was disturbed but it will be these black strips that will warm up faster in the spring and then he will plant his corn right on those strips. First of all these are amazing soils right? (Yeah. Are you seeing this?) This is a high clay soil with unbelievable aggregation in it.

And why have more covered crops, why not just plant this whole thing in radishes?

So the nice thing about that is that if the radish doesn’t take off the fava beans might and if the fava beans don’t take off then the flax might and all of these different cover crops have a different purpose in their soil and different root structures. This tap root will get down to, I mean we have seen them at four feet after 12 weeks and so for us that’s great it’s capturing all those nutrients from that have leached and bringing them back to the surface and storing them in this organic material. This would mean a legume is fixing nitrogen. We have the volunteer wheat coming back in which is a very nice fibrous root and so that is going to build soil aggregation and the flax is known to be really mycorrhizal friendly. I guess flax is just a little more friendly. (They love the flax.)

Abby then took me out to one of her research plots where they are analyzing the correlation between nitrogen rates and cover crops.

We did different nitrogen rates to see how much nitrogen needs to be added and when it’s released from the cover crops and to answer some of those questions that farmers have about, “when am I going to get this nitrogen that this cover crop took out back for my crop?”

And what’s your hypothesis, what do you think we’re going to see here?

You know what we’re seeing what we don’t expect and the great thing about doing the science and the research is that you learn that cover crops aren’t all rainbows and puppies, you know it’s not something that you’re going to get that nitrogen back that following year and you can credit a certain amount for having covered crops in your system. We are learning that we really need to understand how these approaches are going to work so the farmers don’t get stung with not enough nitrogen in their fields in raising a corn crop. So we are not sure when that nitrogen gets released it varies in different years.

What is your favorite thing to share with a farmer about soil health?

My favorite thing is when we go out in the field and the farmer and I dig in their soil and they see what’s happening, that’s my favorite thing to share with them is that moment where they are seeing what their soils can do and how quickly it can change it’s a moment in time where they are seeing how something that they are doing is changing their soils.

Cover crops provide numerous soil health advantages, including erosion prevention, improved soil structure, and increased organic matter. But, does one size fit all? In this weeks episode, we dig deeper with Dr. Abbey Wick, Assistant Professor, Extension Soil Health Specialist at North Dakota State University (@NDSUsoilhealth).

EPISODE 1 - Uncovering stories from the soil

There’s a lot of research out there about soil health and a ton of technical information. But none of it does us any good unless we can see how it actually takes place at the ground level. My name is Tim Hammerich from the Future of Agriculture Podcast. Cool Planet and I are going to travel the country and capture stories about how land stewards and growers and farmers are actually developing their own soil health and how that impacts their lives and the food they’re growing for you.

Our first episode brings us to Johnstown, Colorado where I meet up with Jim Loar, president and CEO of Cool Planet. Well Jim, I’m really excited about this series, Stories from the Soil, I’m curious though from Cool Planet’s perspective, why invest in a project like this? Well, Cool Planet is a company dedicated to innovation, technology development for agriculture. We have a strong company and a strong team that are dedicated to that. You know, in my career, concepts, ideas, answers, solutions, best come from farmers and so we’re excited to listen to people in the industry, people who are knowledgeable about agriculture, about soil health.

Soil to me is so much more than the media that we use to grow plants, I mean, it is biologically active. It is diverse, and I think we’re going to get to see some of that diversity in this series. It is literally the groundwork for our agricultural system and I think even with modern advances in technology, even with hybrids, even with genetic engineering, even with precision agriculture, we still rely on the soil being healthy for our long-term sustainability has done amazing things when it comes to productivity and efficiency. I think if we’re going to continue that curve throughout the next several generations, we need to put the soil first and then build technologies like you are which work with nature and not against it.

From a farmer’s perspective, sustainability is great. I think they’re probably the most sustainable people in the world, but they have to do it profitably too, so we need to be bringing them tools that help them with productivity and profitability.

Let’s take Cool Terra® for example, a fixed carbon material that goes into the soil that basically provides a habitat for the soil biology. And what I love about what you’re doing is that you can show effectiveness and profitability in the first year while building that long-term soil profile and those are the solutions we need, especially as the farm economy struggles.

Agriculture is humanity. Agriculture is people. Agriculture is the grandfather, the grandson, who’s out there farming the land. Hearing what their issues and thoughts are is important. Stories from the Soil’s going to help us look at a wide cross section.

Well I’m excited because I usually get a chance to talk a lot about this stuff but not a chance to actually visit in person and to get out there and to sit down with these growers and really understand how they’re looking at soil health is something I think is going to be extremely valuable as well as getting different perspectives from all around the country. So, couldn’t be more excited to get things kicked off. Should be a load of fun too. Oh yeah, I can’t wait.

When it comes to the topic of ‘soil health’ there are a lot of different ideas, opinions, and strategies. Stories From the Soil is here to provide perspectives on soil health innovation and management practices straight from the ground level. In this week’s episode, Cool Planet’s President and CEO, Jim Loar, explains the motivation behind Stories From the Soil and how Cool Planet is innovating soil health management tools to support growers and land stewards for greater profitability and sustainability!

An authentic look at the realities of soil health

"This is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, exciting frontiers for farming, is soil biology. It's flat out energizing to be part of this"
-Jeffrey Mitchell, Ph.D
I learned it on the chin this year. We have got to find ways to keep our soil from moving."
-Jay Hill (@hilljay45)
I've been doing soil health things for years, now that my grandson is here, we actually measure it."
-Israel Morales
It's not about getting bigger. It's about getting better."
-John Heermann


Cool Planet and the Future of Agriculture traveled the U.S. and captured stories from the ground level of soil health management practices, innovation, and realities. We are excited to share these stories with you. Check back often for new episodes and stories from different perspectives to learn more about the impact soil health has on our agricultural and horticultural productivity and sustainability. Let’s work together to advance soil health knowledge and management to ensure a long-lasting and productive foundation for growth.

Future of Agriculture podcaster traveling the country with Cool Planet to uncover soil stories

“Soil health is the literal groundwork and foundation of our nation’s agricultural system and our food supply,” said Tim Hammerich,

Future of Agriculture Episode 119

Stories From the Soil with Jim Loar

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