Omaha World Herald Editorial: Legislation promotes a soil health initiative for Nebraska agriculture

Editorial: Legislation promotes a soil health initiative for Nebraska agriculture

· Editorial staff



Unconventional cultivation methods have taken root in a number of Nebraska farms. These methods, such as no-till farming and use of diverse cover crops, are praised for their promotion of soil health. The benefits of this approach, and whether the state should create a state task force to promote it, were the subject Tuesday before the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.

This “regenerative farming” approach brings major benefits, including a reduction in fertilizer volume and irrigation. Scott Gonnerman, who farms near York, uses such methods. The approach has enabled him to reduce his nitrogen use by 50 percent to 60 percent, and he has eliminated his use of phosphorous completely, he told the Agriculture Committee. The Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District has pointed to Gonnerman’s methods as exemplary in promoting soil health.

Such production methods provide another important benefit: They reduce the runoff of nitrates into nearby streams, which is the key water quality challenge for Nebraska. Various NRDs are working with farmers to reduce high nitrate levels in creeks and rivers.

These agricultural methods aren’t easy, however, and they’re used at present by a minority of Nebraska producers. Farmers, of course, have the right to decide for themselves how best to manage their operations. At the same time, a range of Nebraska organizations say that no-till and cover crops can be viable options for more agricultural producers if they’re properly informed about the benefits and the ways to make the practices work, including use of government financial incentives.

“There’s a lot of farmers and ranchers that haven’t heard this,” State Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton told the Agriculture Committee. “A lot of producers do not have a clue about what is going on with conservation practices for soil health.” Current outreach on the issue is fragmented and uncoordinated. Gragert is an expert in this regard, having worked for 31 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service.

Under his Legislative Bill 243, the state would create a task force to develop a coordinated educational effort.

Regenerative soil practices currently are used on less than 2 percent of Nebraska’s soil, Tom Hoegemeyer, a professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told the committee. “We have lots of organizations trying to promote soil health,” he said. “This proposal would help coordinate the efforts and put them in a single package.”

Gragert’s bill received support at the hearing from a wide range of agricultural producers, as well as NRD leaders and organizations including Nebraska Pork Producers, Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Nebraska Wildlife Federation.

Members of the committee rightly indicated they want to think through specifics such as the task force membership and want to avoid imposing new state mandates on producers. At the same time, the overall point from the testifiers is valid:

Regenerative farming offers major benefits, and it likely can prove a viable method for considerably more Nebraska producers. A coordinated educational and support effort would serve the state’s best interest.