Trailblazers in Soil Health: No-till on the Plains

Photo shows Steve Swaffar, Executive Director of No-till on the Plains (left) with Jim Johnson, Agronomist at Noble Research Institute (right) examining soil. Steve is an active SHLL member, passionate about his work, attending every meeting, sharing his experiences openly and providing thoughtful questioning and feedback to his peers. No-till on the Plains is a farmer led organization and pioneer in soil health efforts.

Soil health is on a lot of people’s minds these days, but that hasn’t always been the case- especially on larger scale farms in the United States. Two years ago, the Food Lab started the Soil Health Leadership Lab (SHLL) to help offer shared learning and resources among soil health professionals. No-till on the Plains Executive Director, Steve Swaffar, was one of the first to join the SHLL and No-till on the Plains has been an early pioneer in soil health efforts, being founded almost thirty years ago. Learning from their organizational experience will help us make strides today as more stakeholders from farmers to food companies are committing to soil health initiatives to save water, reduce pesticide and fertilizer use and address climate change.

In the 1990’s, large-scale farmers who wanting to protect their soil lacked information- there was no guidelines in conventional agricultural circles. No-till on the Plains was a catalyst to asking questions and bringing together farmers and conservation specialists to tackle the critical question of how to keep soil on the farm field and investigate the cascade of positive ramifications for water resources, fertilizer and pesticide use, weed pressure and nutrient cycles. We see this same drive now especially in how to measure farmer ROI from implementing soil health practices, creating markets for more diverse crops in corn, soy, wheat, canola heavy rotations and integrating livestock back into cropping systems.

No-till on the Plains experienced another barrier to early adoption- lack of appropriate equipment that would seed fields without tilling. Farmer’s used the No-till on the Plains community to share equipment hacks and compare notes in the early days before a lot of research had been done. Now, airseeders and no-till planters have filled that vacuum. Research-based protocols have developed around how to manage weeds, plant and harvest in the way that best protects and improves the integrity of the soil to support healthy soil, water and nutrient systems. These are huge accomplishments. In recent years, we have seen similar interest and innovations in crop rotations and integration of small grains in soy and corn rotations. Engaging stakeholders from crop insurance companies, banks and food companies will help lead to more widespread adoption on the farm.

At this moment in time, we are at a watershed moment. The buzz around regenerative agriculture and growing concerns around climate change have more people than ever, including farmers, technological innovators, food companies, policy makers and investors, interested in making wide scale improvements to soil health and climate change. Through the Food Lab’s Soil Health Leadership Lab (SHLL) and our other projects, we are helping to connect organizations and leaders like Steve Swaffar that are pushing the envelope forward and identifying how to connect with and support farmers.

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