Face-to-face format brings enthusiasts to Soil Health U

A reunion of sorts brought believers and curious food producers to Salina, Kansas in mid-January, to share and learn about regenerative agriculture.

Parking lots packed with pickup trucks as farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals gathered to promote soil health that could help curb climate change and weather extremes throughout the nation and the world.

Spiritual leaders from a sponsor, Catholic Rural Life of the Salina (Kansas) Diocese, reached out for divine assistance to help guide those who attended High Plains Journal’s face-to-face return to Soil Health U.

“I would ask for you to see your daily solitary labor as a loving act of your service not only to God, but for the benefit of all His creation and for all societies from all lands. He has chosen and called you all by name to be partners and trustees in the land he has given you to protect and eventually pass on,” said Deacon Walt Slingsby, of Clay Center, Kansas.

Speakers, demonstrators, and vendors offered solutions throughout the Tony’s Pizza Events Center, aiming to improve stewardship and offer alternatives to farm and ranch operations.

Earth and its soil commanded the spotlight.

“We really do have to understand we are stewards of the land. Protect and enhance this resource,” said Jerry Hatfield, retired United States Department of Agriculture laboratory director. His keynote address opened the conference.

Three stages served as platforms for experts to offer both hope, change, and challenge to cope with rapid changes on the prairie landscapes of middle America.

A passionate Jay Young, farmer and rancher from Greeley County, Kansas, opened his presentation with prayer, and then pushed improving soil health with compost, cover crops, and reducing input costs.

Chris Grotegut, a farmer, rancher and veterinarian from Hereford, Texas, talked about experimentation that has added to his operation’s water supply.

“Sometimes having faith and letting it happen makes things happen,” Grotegut said. “What we did you would not have done if you were a pure economist.”

After two years without face-to-face collaboration, more than 400 people from 19 states and 47 vendors filled the arena, concourses, and just about every other nook and cranny with eager, substantive chatter.

Those who drove to Salina and spent much of two days in the big building, wasted little time getting back to collaboration.

“We are building and supporting a soil health community in the High Plains through open communication and peer networking at our event,” said Jessica Gnad, Soil Health U content consultant since 2019 and emcee of the 2023 conference.

“Producers are competitive by trade, whether competing with other producers or Mother Nature. Bringing folks together to share successes and failures might feel foreign, but that wasn’t the case during Soil Health U,” she said. “We are very happy with that.”

After the COVID pandemic relegated the event to a digital presentation in 2021 and 2022, it was apparent folks were ready to mingle this year in the north-central Kansas gathering place.

Gnad praised the HPJ’s swift development of a “digital platform” to continue educating agricultural players until the global health crisis subsided enough to allow a traditional gathering.

“I don’t think we skipped a beat from our momentum,” she said. “We were able to bring it back to in-person and provide quality education for soil health. The topics are urgent and action items attainable. We can do this.”

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Conference attendees could be heard discussing what they learned and giving reviews of presenters and vendors. Some stopped at the Timac Agro USA booth for appetizers of fancily wrapped chocolates, and posed questions to Joel Mahin, of Concordia, Kansas, regional sales manager of the central Midwest, and sales representative Timothy Bouchey, of Zurich, Kansas, about plant nutrient enhancement products.

“I think it was a good show,” Mahin said. “With the rain that everybody saw there on Wednesday and the crowd coming back on Thursday, there was a lot of optimism. Every farmer and rancher is an eternal optimist. Nobody except the farmer puts seeds in the ground and waits six months to cash in on it.”

Ed Warthen, of Neosho, Missouri, and Josh Hembree of Seneca, Missouri, were manning the Superior Standard Livestock Equipment booth. The company is based in Carthage, Missouri.

“It was a good show overall. We managed to get a couple contacts out of it,” Hembree said, adding he learned more about cattle and livestock playing important roles in soil health.

The arena stage was home to some sobering reminders.

“We can do better. We have to do better,” said Andrew Lyon, director of conservation for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, a second day keynote speaker.

Varying forms of that plea were repeated after pointing out a number of concerns, including:

• The loading of Kansas waters with nutrients for decades, producing algae blooms in ponds and lakes

• Loss of 75% of grassland bird species populations, according to the journal “Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment,” that continue to be in “significant decline,” he said.

• Drawdown of the Ogallala and High Plains aquifers in southwestern and western Kansas counties—“In areas, studies have shown 60% of the aquifer is already gone,” Lyon said.

• Invasion of wood species to grassland, reducing forage production, leading to “over-grazing of perennial systems, and soil erosion,” he said. “More adaptive grazing reduces invasive species encroachment.”

Water resources are “a huge part of the economy of our state. We have to sustain it over time, and we have to sustain the prices we receive for what we produce. If feed yards aren’t in western Kansas, we aren’t going to get the same price at the sale barn,” Lyon said. “It affects the entire state.”

Adding that a number of the 24 federal reservoirs in Kansas are in danger of filling with sediment, he pointed to Tuttle Creek near Manhattan, a body of water that “according to some experts, will be 90% full of sediment by 2070.”

Building soil health is a huge part of what’s important, Lyon said, but a broader approach is also necessary.

“Our ecosystem is not functioning properly,” Lyon said. “We’re not looking at it from a whole system approach. As we build conservation in the future, it all has to work as a system.”

It all begins where the seeds are planted.

“Soil health improves the environmental outcome. It affects all resource concerns. We can get erosion rates down to a half ton per acre, 10 times lower than now,” he said. “Increasing soil organic matter will increase infiltration. A 1% increase stores an additional 25,000 gallons (of water) per acre.”

Lyon outlined a number of programs aimed at moving toward soil health management systems, such as private carbon markets.

“For the first time, a soil health initiative line item is in the state budget, focusing on us trying to be innovative,” he said, also advocating for gatherings that promote small “farmer-to-farmer groups” to build support networks.

Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland, an American multinational food processing and commodities trading company, wants more cover crops planted in Kansas, he said, growing its program from 103,000 acres to 200,000 next year.

“ADM is the first, but certainly not the last, to offer these opportunities,” Lyon said. “Take advantage of them. If you don’t, someone else will.”

Speaker Jay Fuhrer, a conservationist from North Dakota, planted hope as he closed the show.

“We have traction (for improving soil health) we haven’t had before. We need to build some things back,” he said, before urging his audience to set a goal.

“Mine is to be able to farm forever.”

Tim Unruh can be reached at [email protected].