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Soil Health: The Foundation of Life

By Lura Roti
 
Walking through the fields he has spent more than 40 years caring for, Dan Forgey says it's not the crop he's walking through that captures his attention these days, but the soil he is walking on.
 
"Today, I pay attention to what is growing under my feet instead of just paying attention to what is growing above the soil's surface. In fact, I spend more time thinking about what is going on below," explains Forgey, 68, the Agronomy Manager for Cronin Farms, Gettysburg, South Dakota.
 
His management practices affirm his dedication to soil health. Since the early 90s, Forgey has implemented no-till. He plants a diverse cropping rotation that includes 12 different warm and cool season crops. In addition, 300 acres of crop ground are planted to a diverse full season cover crop blend.
 
"Planting a diversified cover crop has all the plant roots and their microbes the soil likes - building soil health," Forgey says.
 
The farm's soils have responded to Forgey's invested focus with increased water absorption and retention, reduced erosion and an increase in organic matter.
 
Healthier soils have less need for inputs and are capable of supporting crops even in less than cooperative weather conditions, Forgey explains. "Even during this year's drought, the soil health helped us with yields," he says. "Soil is forgiving. Taking care of it is so rewarding because it is sustainable."
 
When Forgey began farming at 17, his farming practices were not sustainable. "I spent the first 24 years destroying our soils and the last 25 years making them healthy," he says. "It's been a big learning curve."
 
A learning curve that a community of soil health experts and enthusiasts helped Forgey navigate. "Without a doubt, I had help. You have to go somewhere for your information," Forgey says of gleaning advice from SDSU Extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Soil Health and Grassland Coalitions.
 
Today, Forgey is a go-to soil health guru of sorts, sharing what he's learned with other farmers and landowners throughout the state and region.
 
He is part of a growing number of individuals and organizations collaborating to increase soil health awareness and information working together to ultimately improve soil health across the state and nation.
 
"Soil health is essential to sustaining South Dakota's number one industry of agriculture," explains Anthony Bly, SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist. "It's related to food security."
 
Bly references the grand challenge to feed a growing global population with a diminishing land resource.
 
"Everything we grow comes from the soil. If we don't take care of it and build up this natural resource, it endangers food security," he says. "Soil health is the way to accomplish this."
 
Taking care of the soil is not just the responsibility of farmers like Forgey. It's everyone's job, says Jeff Zimprich, State Conservationist for NRCS in South Dakota.
 
"When I talk about big projects we should care about, I call them sandboxes. Because of our state's economic dependence upon agriculture, soil health is the most important sandbox South Dakotans need to get involved in. When I say South Dakotans, I mean all of us. All South Dakotans need to have a better understanding of and appreciation for our soil resource. There is room in this sandbox for everyone," says Zimprich, who is responsible for overseeing NRCS personnel and programs throughout South Dakota.
 
Soil health - or rather the lack of, Zimprich explains, is the reason the federal agency he serves was established.
 
"The NRCS was formed in 1935, born out of the Dust Bowl. We are all about helping producers, land owners and operators of private land care for natural resources," Zimprich says, explaining that 75 percent of all land in South Dakota is privately owned.
 
Zimprich quickly adds that the task of improving the state's soil health is too large for any one agency, organization or group to take on alone.
 
"The job is huge. It's so big. We have to collaborate. Also, all of us - individuals, agencies and organizations - bring different strengths to the table," Zimprich says. "When you collaborate you get to use everyone's strengths."
 
Bly echoes this comment.
 
"Through collaboration we make our message stronger and more effective," Bly says. "From the perspective of SDSU Extension, our partners are also our stakeholders. As the outreach arm of our state's land grant, we rely on our stakeholders for feedback - so we can clearly understand needs to direct our research and programming."
 
The unbiased nature of this team brings with it a credibility many landowners trust, says Selby farmer, Doug Sieck.
 
"As a producer it's tough to sort through the information and data when companies put their own data together," explains Sieck, who helped charter the S.D. Soil Health Coalition in 2015 and recently retired as its president. "When I get information from NRCS or SDSU Extension there is no commercial agenda behind the recommendations and that is important because mistakes are costly and margins are tight."
 
In addition to changing his management practices to no-till, planting cover crops, increasing cropping rotations and diversity and rotating his cattle herd through pastures daily during the growing season - Sieck says getting involved in workshops and seminars focused on soil health introduced him to a community of experts, farmers and landowners who are willing to step outside what is thought of as conventional, to improve soil health. This changed his mind set and the way he thinks about his lifelong career of farming.
 
"Spending time with out-of-the-box thinkers, impacted my attitude about farming. It's a refreshing way to look at what I do," explains Sieck, a fourth-generation South Dakota farmer. "And, I'm German, so I also like the fact that it's a new way to do things that means I won't have to buy as many inputs."
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