Improving soil health on farms can have enormous climate benefits and make farms less vulnerable.

That was the focus in a recent roundtable moderated by Heidi Roop, assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate. The goal of the roundtable was to discuss ways that farms in the state can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand soil health practices.

Included in the discussion were Anna Cates, soil health extension specialist at the University of Minnesota; Kristin Duncan, owner and partner at Highland Family Farms; John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources; and Lance Klessig, resources specialist with the Winona Soil and Water Conservation District.

Roop said that over the past century, temperatures have risen, growing seasons have become longer and extreme precipitation events have increased in frequency and severity.

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"These all pose challenges to the agricultural sector," Roop said. "The impacts have direct and indirect effects on production, profitability and how we all benefit from the food that shows up at our table and the wide range of services that are provided by the agricultural sector here in the Midwest."

She said practices like cover crops and reducing tillage reduce fuel and fertilizer costs while also offering Minnesota farmers a way to improve soil health and store more carbon in the ground.

Jaschke said Minnesota is blessed with some of the best soil and water in the country. He said, once upon a time, the prairie landscape in the state allowed for plants to grow and decay over and over again without help from farmers.

"And that's actually some of the things that we're paying attention to now, management ways of doing what nature did all by itself, when there weren't any humans around," Jaschke said. "The soil can produce a lot, obviously, reliant on the sun, and all the other parts of our ecological systems."

What makes soil healthy?

Cates said that when considering healthy soil, the definition by Natural Resources Conservation Service goes back to the function of the soil, meaning each farmer decides what their definition of soil health is.

"If what you're looking for is high crop yield, that's an important function, and if what you're looking for is water infiltration, that's also an important function," Cates said. "Ideally, we have multifunctional soils, but I like thinking about soil health as being flexible, depending on the function you want to get."

Duncan, who said she was "overwhelmed by the knowledge" of the panel in the discussion, said their farm in Mapleton, Minn., has raised quality grains, vegetables and meat for over 30 years. She said they take a "systematic approach" to managing their soil, from the working lands portion of it to the edges of their land.

"We have to look systematically at what are we doing here, and how we are managing these nutrients, if we have the opportunity to use our hog manure or from our livestock operations," Duncan said. "What does that mean to us, and what does it also mean when we are looking at the ditches that surround our fields — what do those buffer strips mean, wildlife habitats, all of that is a systematic approach to how we work out here."

She said as a farm, having healthier soil makes them less vulnerable as an operation.

"Farmers do two things every single day — try to work on how we're going to be more productive, and how we're going to be less vulnerable," Duncan said. "Reducing risk can be done through lots of different ways, but protecting our soil makes us perhaps the most sense when we're talking about those two elements."