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Agronomic support is key for soil health success

The Trusted Advisor Partnership (TAP) program launched this week an initiative that provides independent farmer advisory services to amplify the adoption of profitable stewardship practices.

Major food and beverage companies, PepsiCo, King Arthur Baking, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, Unilever, and the Walmart Foundation, have invested in TAP, and the Sustainable Food Lab is the project administrator.

TAP will focus resources first on North Dakota, bringing together Certified Crop Advisors who are experts on a wide range of topics, including reduced tillage, cover cropping, and integrated pest management.

CCAs Jason Hanson of Rock and Roll Agronomy, Dr. Lee Briese of Centrol Ag Consulting, monitoring and evaluation consultant Jean Haley of Haley Consulting Services, and North Dakota State University professor Dr. Jason Harmon will participate in interactive practicum led by Dr. Abbey Wick, NDSU associate professor, Extension soil health specialist, and co-lead for the project.

“Certified Crop Advisors are the focus of this program,” Wick says. “This group is a highly trained group of individuals that help farmers make decisions on a daily basis.”

Soil Health Practices

This model in North Dakota can be implemented in other states as the program grows.

“With a wide variety of commodities grown within our borders and a strong existing base of CCAs, North Dakota is the ideal region to demonstrate the critical importance of connecting farmers with independent information delivered by trusted advisors – information on the conservation ag practices that build not only better soil, but a better bottom line for our state and tribal producers,” Wick says.

Land in North Dakota is particularly susceptible to wind and water erosion, which, in some areas of the state, has stripped 50% of topsoil. The resulting loss in annual productivity over the past 50 years is in the tens of millions of dollars.

“In my opinion, if you’re not controlling erosion, then why bother with any of the other soil health concepts?” Wick asks. “If soil is leaving the field, whether by water or wind, then it’s really tough to improve soil health.”

Leaving soil unprotected in the fall and over winter is a contributing issue. Minimizing tillage and keeping living roots in the soil can help.

Wick says her motto, especially with soil health practices, is that if it can be done in North Dakota, it can be done anywhere. And the goal is to expand the program beyond the borders of North Dakota.

“Our future depends on a movement toward farming practices that positively impact the land and the people who farm it,” says Brad Heald, director of mill relations at King Arthur Baking. “We know we must partner with farmers and increase their access to technical assistance and support to achieve our goal of sourcing 100% of our flour from regeneratively grown wheat by 2030. The North Dakota Trusted Advisor Partnership is an integral part of providing this support and will serve as a model for other regions to follow. We are grateful to be a part of this group and look forward to the impact it will have.”

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Carbon Sequestration

The food and beverage companies investing in TAP have carbon sequestration goals and by participating, are able to gain more information about effective practices, starting at the farm level.

“The feedback and information we’re gathering is going to help guide carbon programs that are being developed,” Wick says. “We all want to move forward and doing this together to make the best possible programs. In the end, a certified crop advisor could guide their farmer in to select the program that’s best for their operation based on their logistics, crops, and goals.”

As industry farmers and certified crop advisers work together to reduce the risk of adoption, there is greater long-term success for everyone.

Jerry Hatfield, Ph. D., ag industry advisor for The Context Network, says, “The value of increased carbon in the soil directly benefits the producer because increases soil water and nutrient availability leading to less variation in yield due to weather and greater profits.”

Future of TAP

“We’re excited to be taking the wraps off this cross-sector effort, especially on the heels of an unprecedented investment in our nation’s ag economy from the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities fund,” says Elizabeth Reaves, senior director at the Sustainable Food Lab. “Dollars alone are not enough; there is, and will continue to be, a pressing need for more agronomic talent to de-risk the transition to regenerative. By syncing farmers with unbiased technical support and customized supply chain programs, we believe this project has the potential to accelerate the momentum around soil health and whole-of-farm stewardship in the U.S.”

To date, the North Dakota Trusted Advisor Partnership has hosted workshops and distributed preliminary surveys to gauge baseline practice adoption.

There are plans to test and iterate on training modules in upcoming forums in North Dakota. By the end of 2025, the project intends to reach 300,000 acres with its site-specific, logistics-based soil health training. An ultimate outcome will be a plug-and-play model for technical assistance that is translatable to other agricultural geographies and contexts, including tribal communities.

In addition to expanding the number of participating CCAs from 10 to 30 by 2024, the initiative is actively looking to bring other contributors and fiscal supporters into the fold, with several other collaborators set to join by year-end.

CONTEXT NETWORK

This article is part of the SF Carbon Connection, a joint carbon market project between Successful Farming magazine and The Context Network, West Des Moines, Iowa. We are developing editorial content regarding existing carbon markets and carbon programs available to farmers. Each month, Successful Farming magazine and Agriculture.com will contain stories that enable farmers to dig deeper into carbon markets. Future carbon market coverage may also convey information through other media platforms.

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