Dear USDA, We Care About Our Soil!

More than 40 organizations deliver the USDA a letter telling them how soil should be treated for better farms.

by Dani Yokhna

Dear USDA, We Care About Our Soil! - Photo by iStock/Thinkstock (

When it comes to agriculture, the USDA likes to think it knows what’s up. Earlier this month, more than 40 nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies challenged this idea when they signed a letter to our nation’s farming overseer that asked for more ag policy and practices emphasizing soil health for the health of the American landscape.

It’s not only sustainable-farming groups backing this request. Among the cosigners are the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the American Soybean Association, Case IH, Dupont-Pioneer and the Environmental Defense Fund. (See all organizations that signed on at the end of the letter.) Titled “A Common Vision Statement on Cover Crops and Soil Health,” this letter is only one page long, but for this many cross-industry groups to come together on one common subject says a lot about the seriousness of soil health and their commitment to seeing it through.

The letter opens with a discussion of farmers’ focus on soil health and of cover crops’ many benefits—providing pollinator habitat and forage, retaining soil nutrients, and reducing erosion. It goes on to recognize some valuable soil-health programs around the country—some of which I wasn’t aware of—including the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health held earlier this year, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Unlock the Secrets in the Soil national soil-health campaign, the Soil Renaissance, the Soil Health Partnership, soil-health and cover-crop research projects, and USDA ag-census conservation statistics.

In every good sales letter, there’s the “ask.” This letter’s ask comes as a request for support from USDA to develop a soil-health strategic plan that includes research, education, extension, data collection, financial and technical assistance, credit, and risk management. It’s a business plan for the entirety of America’s farmland, if you will. As of this writing (11 days after the letter’s delivery), USDA hasn’t publicly responded to these groups’ request. I think a simple “We’ll get back to you on this” will do. Some dates/deadlines for accountability would be nice to see, too.

Better Your Soil
With the USDA being taken to task for their role in supporting soil-health initiatives, this is a good time to assign some work to yourself, too. The responsibility of soil health belongs to everyone involved in agriculture, whether a person is farming 1,200 acres in rural Iowa or 1,200 square feet in suburban L.A. If you don’t regularly work to improve your farm’s or garden’s soil health already, make 2015 the year of soil health for your property.

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Stay tuned for what the USDA plans to do with this request for a national soil-health plan. Let me know in the comments below the steps you take on your farm to improve your soil health.

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