Banking on Soil Health

Farmers implementing conservation practices that improve soil health aren't just hoping for better crop yields, they’re banking on them. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust recently released case studies highlighting the economic benefits of implementing soil health management practices.

The four case studies focus on:

  • Two corn-soybean farmers in Illinois and Ohio;

  • An almond producer in California; and

  • A diversified crop farmer growing sweet corn, alfalfa, and corn for silage or grain in New York.

The four farmers implemented soil health practices like no-till or strip-till, nutrient management, cover crops, compost, and mulching.


Case Study Highlights

  • The average yield increase for all crops grown was 12%

  • The average return on investment was 176%, with a range from 35% to 343%.

  • The practices led to increased infiltration, thereby reducing water runoff and soil erosion to ultimately improve water quality outcomes.

“Quantifying these economic benefits of soil health management systems across the nation’s diverse soils, climates, and production systems has been one of the critical gaps in rapidly increasing their adoption,” said NRCS Soil Health Division Director Bianca Moebius-Clune.

“Although many farmers are strong conservationists, a deciding factor is how the cost compares to the return. Each case study offers a clear example. This gives producers interested in making changes on their operation an idea of the potential return on their investment, and how those economic benefits can be justified.”

Conservation Innovation Grant

The four case studies were developed as part of AFT’s 2018 NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant project entitled “Accelerating Soil Health Adoption by Quantifying Economic and Environmental Outcomes & Overcoming Barriers on Rented Lands.” The study employed several tools developed by USDA and NRCS to conduct the analysis.

AFT hired Florence Swartz, a retired NRCS economist from New York, to conduct the economic partial budget analysis. AFT also partnered with the developers of USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool to determine water quality benefits of the adopted soil health practices and NRCS’ COMET-Farm tool to determine their greenhouse gas emissions reductions. These tools are both available to the public.

“We felt there was a gap in information available to producers – most farmers are aware of the environmental benefits of soil health practices, but the on-farm costs and benefits of implementing them have not been widely available,” said Michelle Perez, water initiative director and lead researcher of this project for AFT.

“We wanted to help fill that gap. USDA and NRCS has invested in the people and the tools that provide these quantitative assessments. AFT is using this infrastructure to show the economic and environmental benefits across a variety of farming operations.”

Establishing profitability and good return on investment is key to helping farmers evaluate risk in trying something new. Farmers who have been considering adding soil health practices to their operation can use these case studies to approach their property landlords to discuss sharing the risks and rewards of the soil health investments. If purchasing a new field, farmers may also consider sharing the case studies with their bankers to secure additional financing for farm expansion.