Six Missouri farms have joined the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), a research project aimed at bringing more benefits to famers and the environment.

Crops of the farm of Brent Hoerr in Palmyra, MO. Hoerr is one of six Missouri farmers participating in the Soil Health Partnership

The six have joined crop growers across what’s referred to as the corn belt states in the Midwest to study ways to improve production and water quality as well reduce greenhouse gases.

A total of 110 farms in 10 states are taking part in the partnership.

There’s research suggesting that nurturing soil leads to better performance of crops and a higher resistance to floods and droughts, as well as benefits to water quality and carbon emissions.

Some farming experts have identified three practices as effective in improving the quality of soil.  They include managing the use of fertilizers, cutting back on tilling procedures and planting cover crops during the off season.

Darrick Steen oversees environmental programs for both the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and the state’s Corn Merchandising Council.

He say the purpose of the Soil Health Partnership is to provide proof the suggested practices actually work.

“The missing link has been data that show these practices can provide a significant economic benefit on real, working farms, in addition to positive environmental outcomes,” said Steen.

The six Missouri farms involved with the program will concentrate on the use of cover crops.  Steen says there are two reasons to do so.

“The cover crop area, the science is not mature. So we’re focusing of cover crops because of that, but also because Missouri’s landscape in almost all areas is not flat.  It’s subject to, and more prone to soil erosion.”

In a state where soil erosion is an issue, Steen says cover crops help provide protection.

Brian D. Martin on his farm in Centralia, MO. Martin is one of six Missouri farmers participating in the Soil Health Partnership

“You’ve got a protective layer on top of the soil, as well as the root system from those plants that’s holding that soil in place, preventing it from eroding during rain storms.”

Soybeans are the number one revenue producing crop in Missouri, followed by corn.  The vast majority of crop acres on Missouri farms are on a corn and soybean rotation.  The two plants are a good fit for each other because soybeans tend to replenish the soil with nitrogen, while corn crops absorb the gas.

Steen says farmers in Missouri and across the country are now facing hardships because commodity prices are at all-time lows, and because of changing weather patterns.

“We’re seeing more intense rainfalls, more rain coming down in one storm,” Steen said.  “And when we have more intense rainfall we have a harder time addressing some of those environmental challenges like erosion, like nutrient run-off, and all those things.”

One of the goals of the Soil Health Partnership is to stop nutrients – namely fertilizer – from ending up in rivers.  Steen says the farming community knows that water quality is an important issue in Missouri.  “Our state’s tourism is centered around the use of, and recreation of water.  So it’s something that we’re always working to try and protect.”

There’s also the phenomenon of “Gulf Hypoxia”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hypoxic zones are areas in the ocean that have such low oxygen concentration that marine life suffocates and dies.  As a result, such areas are sometimes called “dead zones.”

Each spring as farmers fertilize their lands preparing for crop season, rain washes fertilizer off the land and into streams and rivers.  Those runoffs have been cited as a major contributor to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.  The largest dead zone ever recorded in the U.S. appeared last month in the Gulf.

Steen says the Soil Health Partnership is designed to help curb the occurrence of dead zones.  “That’s a big issue that we recognize.  There are a number of things going on within Missouri to try and reduce our contribution, our impact to that.  And this one of those.”

Other groups involved in the Soil Health Partnership represent a wide range of agricultural, environmental, corpotate and political interests that are often on opposite sides of farming issues.  They include Monsanto, The Nature Conservancy, the Walton Family Foundation, General Mills, the USDA and the Environmental Defense Fund.

One of the six Missouri farmers taking part in the partnership, Richard Fordyce, is former director of the state Department of Agriculture. During his tenure, he championed initiatives such as the Agricultural Stewardship Assurance Program, a voluntary certification program.