Health Soils Task Force Members,
The undersigned organizations appreciate the time and effort of the Healthy Soils Task Force (HSTF) to produce The Nebraska Healthy Soils Task Force Report (draft-Sept. 1, 2020). Given the duties outlined in LB 243, we understand this is a significant undertaking for all who are involved.
Of Nebraska’s 45 million acres of farmland and ranches, nearly 20 million acres are planted to commodities and hay, and 22 million acres are pasture or rangeland. Nebraska farmers and ranchers are, and will continue to be, stewards of the state’s natural resources – making their role critical in achieving soil health goals. To that end, we felt it necessary to outline our concerns and recommendations to ensure this report both acknowledges agricultural producers’ ongoing contributions to soil health efforts, and ensure that it positions the state’s farmers and ranchers to take ownership of this initiative.
On several instances, the HSTF report describes the current condition of Nebraska’s soil, citing such trends as declining organic carbon levels and less landscape and soil microbiome diversity as a result of production agriculture. While those trends may be true looking back to the advent of the plow, this only tells part of the story. At the earliest stages of modern agriculture production, information was finite and natural resources seemed infinite. Today, the inverse is true. Adequate credit must be given to current voluntary efforts and advancements in precision agriculture, rotational grazing, and other conservation practices to prevent diminishing the progress made toward reversing these trends over the last 10-30 years.
Although the report gives the HSTF’s brief analysis of entities and their current soil health efforts, there is very little detail describing their scope, reach, and potential. Greater emphasis on existing efforts would not only give credit to what steps are already being taken, but also validate the need for greater coordination in a voluntary form. Detailing current initiatives would both help promote opportunities to amplify this work and the potential to develop new initiatives and partnerships, as well as illustrate possible overlap and resource/knowledge gaps. Additionally, this may provide an opportunity to clarify the role and structure of the proposed Nebraska Soil Hub. Producers and stakeholders may perceive the hub as a new organization or agency, which could lead to questions regarding how effective it will be in preventing duplication of efforts with another layer of bureaucracy. Thus, we recommend that voluntary efforts be allowed continued success, versus what may seem like a push for new regulatory efforts.
Perception by those who will ultimately undertake the initiative – Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers – is a critical factor in establishing trust and ownership. We feel that some of the language or terms used in the report may be counterproductive to achieving that outcome. Most notably is the term, “regenerative agriculture”. For many farmers, especially those who have not been as involved in the soil health space, regenerative agriculture can seem like either a meaningless buzzword or a radical change to how they currently operate. We believe it may be more effective to focus on the practices and principles of soil health instead of trying to get producers to accept an unfamiliar term.
Water quality receives significant mention in the report. While the two may be related, soil health is only one factor impacting water quality. We have concern that overemphasis of water quality in Nebraska is outside the purpose of LB 243, which is to develop an action plan to achieve measurable improvement in soil standards for organic matter, biological activity, structure, etc. – not measured improvement in water quality. For the purpose of this report, water quality should be limited to being discussed only as a potential added ecosystem service of soil health practice adoption. Similarly, mention of climate change, even if minor, seems like a regulatory effort beyond the original intent of the bill. We recommend the report focus on the ecosystem services soil health practices may provide to aid in adaptation and mitigation of extreme weather events’ impact on agriculture and natural resources.
Notably missing from the HSTF report are two things. First, details regarding the importance of livestock integration outside of grazing. While the fifth soil health principle may nuance integration of livestock solely means grazing of grasses or cover crops, application of manure should be highly regarded as an important part of enhancing soil health, where appropriate. Second, is a much deeper economic analysis producers expect and deserve. To improve implementation, the HSTF must enhance its consideration of this issue; including, but not limited to, the return on investment (ROI) expected to be shouldered by our state’s agriculture producers.
Like the HSTF, we believe coordination of soil health efforts is needed to ensure Nebraska’s status as a powerhouse agricultural state and be the leader in natural resource conservation. This belief is what led to the convening of several “Soil Heath Coalition” roundtable discussions prior to the HSTF formation. In partnership with Nebraska Extension, Nebraska NRCS, and The Nature Conservancy, the goal was to bring together all stakeholders to identify opportunities for voluntary expansion of soil health efforts among Nebraska’s agricultural producers. We provide our concerns and recommendations because we feel it is critically important this report fosters shared understanding on the direction of soil health in Nebraska – in a way that is both compelling to diverse stakeholders, and minimizes potential to alienate the participants needed to lead this initiative.
Thank you for the consideration. We look forward to continued engagement around soil health in Nebraska.
Nebraska Corn Growers Association
Nebraska Farm Bureau
Nebraska Pork Producers
Nebraska Soybean Association
Nebraska State Dairy Association
Nebraska Wheat Growers Association