Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters 2017 a Success!

Barry Fisher, Joe Nester, Paul Jasa, Dave Brandt, Guy Swanson, and John Aeschliman

The 2017 Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters (HSHW) Symposium took place February 1st in Denver at the National Association of Conservation Districts Annual Meeting with a national audience learning from expert producers and researchers. The symposia series is dedicated to integrated and whole systems approaches to agricultural land management practices that protect the availability and quality of land and water resources while generating profitable crop production. At this symposium, 6 of the 25 recognized “No-Till Legends” were panelists or in attendance. This year we brought together the speakers below whose work preserves resources in the Western, Midwest, and Southern United States and as far as Australia.


Brian Richter
is Chief Water Scientist at The Nature Conservancy and the Founder of Sustainable Waters. As a Colorado native who has counseled governments and institutions around the world on sustainable water resource solutions, it was only natural that Brian served as the keynote speaker. Brian presented a “recipe for a sustainable water future” focused on setting sustainable limits on water extraction, reducing water consumption, quantifying rights to use available water, and enabling water trading. Brian has authored many articles and books including Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability. Brian presented on how we can save water through improving irrigation practices, changing crops, using no-till farming and other practices, and how water markets and water rights trading are being utilized to advance sustainability goals. See Brian’s slides here.

Jeff Mitchell is a Cropping Systems Specialist at the University of California-Davis Extension whose research focuses on soil and water management in vegetable production systems in the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. California’s Irrigated Lands Regulatory program requires that farmers use best management practices to limit nutrient runoff in the waterways, including the monitoring and reporting of water quality to protect surface and groundwater. Jeff stressed that no-till systems benefit water quantity, infiltration, crop quality and other environmental benefits, drawing on the example of how one farm avoided excess irrigation through no-till and high residue planting. See Jeff’s slides here.

Mike Taylor and his son, Michael are farmers in Phillips County, Arkansas. Mike reminds us that, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Early on Mike discovered that the tilled areas of his farm were susceptible to erosion, and that the soil was relatively devoid of microbial life. Wanting to improve the quality of his soil, Michael turned to no-till, cover crops and direct seeding. Combined, these practices have improved his now “living” soil and associated expansive plant root systems. In 2014, Michael received a “Yield Chaser Award” for producing soybean yields of 96 bushels per acre on restored farmland. See Mike’s slides here.

John Aeschliman farms on the steep slopes of Colfax, Washington in soils that can run 400 feet deep. He has to manage land that erodes into gullies given the great gradient of the rolling landscape. Over his forty plus years of farming John has discovered how cover crops and direct seeding reduce runoff by improving soil microbial activity and the rhizosphere. Through these practices, John has increased valuable soil organic matter in his fields. See John’s slides here.

Keith Thompson is a producer growing corn, soybean, milo, wheat, sunflowers, and cover crops in rotation on his Kansas acreage. He spoke on the synergy between diversity of crops, intensity of practices, and rotation. Keith’s practices highlight how soil health and crop yields benefit from a variety of practices. For example, when Keith introduced livestock grazing on his landscape their manure and soil disturbance yielded microbes that previously were missing in the soil. By restoring some of the microbial community that are common to native prairies, Keith nurtured a return to soil conditions and makeup that were more resilient to weather extremes and disease or infestation. Crop diversity helps to control weeds (by providing ‘inconsistencies’ that challenge the static or constant habitat condition many weed plants prefer). See Keith’s slides here.

Barry Fisher is the Central Region Leader for the Soil Health Division of NRCS. He was given the Conservation Legacy Award from NRCS for his contribution to ‘Unlock the Secrets of the Soil’ Campaign‘ on soil health. He presented several principles that guide best management practices as is understood by soil scientists today: 1) seek to provide continuous living roots; 2) minimize soil disturbance; 3) maximize biodiversity; and 4) maximize soil cover. Indicators of soil health include organic matter, aggregate stability, water infiltration, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling and balancing soil biology. Improved soil health leads to more resilient crops. See the image comparing no-till with a cover crop to minimum no-till where the no-till and cover crop field became more resilient to threats (weather and pests).

Joe Nester is a leading crop consultant in the Midwest and who manages the Maumee Adapt Network to protect the agricultural intensive Western Lake Erie Basin. His research with The Ohio State University and Michigan State University has focused on a suite of practices to optimize soil health and crop productivity while minimizing loss of nutrients (especially P) into the area waterways that cause harmful algal blooms. Joe initiated ongoing research into how changes in rainfall pH effects soluble phosphorus. The research has demonstrated that a rise in soil pH from reduced acid rain coupled with the plant harvesting of sulfur from the soil is correlated with sulfur deficits in the soils and associated increased pH and solubility of phosphorus. Based on these experiments, Joe suggests that rainfall pH could be a major contributing factor to the change in phosphorus export, and that nutrient management has significantly improved nutrient runoff despite the increased solubility of phosphorus. He advocates that a range of good agricultural practices like 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, right place) and cover crops, can minimize stress on crops and that there is not one single solution but rather a suite of practices is required. See Joe’s slides here.

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is Nutrient Strategy Manager for The Nature Conservancy working from the Chesapeake Bay to the Mississippi and Great Lake Systems and points between. She helped develop the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program and at our Symposium discussed the “trinity” of agriculture: soil health, water quality and nutrient management, and how all help to address erosion, yield, and water quantity issues. The Nature Conservancy has introduced reThink Soil which provides a roadmap for researchers and farmers based on science, economics, and policy.

Paul Jasa is an Extension Engineer from the University of Nebraska working on crop production programs that build soil health and profitability for producers. Paul stressed that tillage has never built soil health, but rather no-till and cover crops allow for the residue to be broken down and reutilized into the soil. Soils are active with dynamic microbial life and physical chemistry processes that depend upon these organisms for performance.

The Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Steering Committee is delighted to work with this talented group of leaders, and the many active participants from NACD’s national membership, to advance the sustainable use of our nation’s agricultural landscape that feeds the world. We thank the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Sponsors, KB Seed Solutions, Green Cover Seed, Exactrix and Gypsoil for their support. We look forward to working with interested parties in part through this ongoing symposia series to protect these vital land and water resources, and we welcome hearing from you regarding how we can address this mission.