Soil health is the key to the future of food production and NRCS is on board. That's the signal National Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller gave to participants in a nationally broadcast opening forum of the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health, which convened in Omaha on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Soil organic matter can hold 18 to 20 times its weight in water because of improvement in the soil's water holding capacity as organic matter goes up, Weller said in his remarks.
"Improving organic matter helps us to better withstand drought and extreme weather," he said. "It protects the air and the water."
Paying attention to soil health and building soil properties through the use of cover crops will be a key component in the future, he said. Weller added that Americans have always been good at developing economic uses for abundant natural resources.
"It is in the DNA of America, the wise use of resources coupled with an abundance of ingenuity and innovation," Weller said. "We're talking about people, operations and communities."
He noted that the newly passed Agricultural Act of 2014, or farm bill, contains a strong conservation title. "Wise stewardship of natural resources can really help in having economic success," he said.
There are no changes in the new Farm Bill in how conservation compliance is administered by USDA, Weller explained. "Nothing on compliance will change," he said. But the law does recouple crop insurance with conservation compliance.
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Crop insurance policies have been an obstacle to the use of cover crops in some instances, but Weller said that NRCS is working with the USDA Risk Management Agency to initiate new policies that better integrate crop insurance products with cover crop plantings.
Soil building practices like cover crops are localized practices. "This isn't one size fits all," he said. "It is more site-specific, and locally led conservation."
He noted that NRCS in some ways is playing catch-up to practices farmers are already implementing. But the agency is energized and moving forward.
The invitation-only conference in Omaha gathered farmers and ranchers, researchers, agriculture businesses and conservationists to discuss soil health and cover crops in particular. The opening sessions, which included Weller's comments and remarks by farmer-panelists, were broadcast to more than 200 locations around the country, including nine sites in Nebraska at Alma, Lincoln, Norfolk, North Platte, O'Neill, Sidney, Syracuse and Wilber.
Other panelists appearing with Weller included Illinois farmer Howard G. Buffet of the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, and Iowa farmer, Ray Gaesser, who currently serves as president of the American Soybean Association. Another broadcast farmer-panel included farmer conservationists from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and North Dakota.
At individual broadcast sites, cover crop discussions were also held with participants after the broadcast, to gain insight into the needs of farmers as they implement cover cropping and soil health practices.
You can learn more about NRCS soil conservation programs by visiting your local NRCS office or by reading upcoming print articles in Nebraska Farmer about the conference.