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Extension Educator Jodi DeJong-Hughes Shares Her Approach to Soil Health

When Jodi DeJong-Hughes started working with farmers to reduce tillage, she wasn’t doing it to improve soil health. Back in 2002, no one was talking about soil health – at least under that name.

“We knew less tillage resulted in soil with better structure and better water infiltration, but we never called it soil health. That didn’t happen until five to seven years ago when that phrase was coined,” she says. 

To help farmers whip their soils into shape, DeJong-Hughes takes into consideration a farmer’s existing tillage and crop-management practices and then recommends small improvements. For the 22 years she’s worked as a regional educator at the University of Minnesota Extension, that’s been her goal – practical solutions that are tailored to each farm and that make agronomic and business sense. 

SF: What sparked your interest in becoming an Extension educator? You don’t have a background in farming, correct?

JD: That’s my dirty little secret. I do not. I knew I liked plants and water, and the doors for agronomy kept opening. So, when I got to Traverse County, Minnesota, I’d have to say I wasn’t very effective. What I knew about agriculture was what I learned in school, and while you learn a lot of neat things, day-to-day farm management is not what I learned.

Farmers would bring in one or two cotyledons and ask, “What is it and how do I kill it?” I’d say, “Can you let it grow up so I can see the flowers and the seeds it produces?” because that is how I learned to identify weeds. 

To learn more about farming, I went out with the co-op to scout fields to start learning why we do what we do and to ask a ton of questions. Later, I married an ex-farmer, so that brought a lot of reality to my beliefs.

SF: Why did you start researching and focusing on tillage?

JD: Extension is a great place to learn and grow if you have the motivation. Nobody told me that I had to learn about and research tillage equipment and their effects on crops and soil. It was just an area that I saw that nobody was covering, and I was really interested in how the soil moves. There was a grant for strip-till research back in 2002, and that’s how I ended up in strip-till. The doors have just opened up to put me where I am. I’m very thankful that they were good doors. 

SF: What’s your favorite part of your job?

JD: One, I have the freedom to work on projects that are needed. When farmers have concerns or questions about ag products, equipment, or practices, I can work on getting nonbiased and researched-based information. Additionally, working with farmers is a blast. I learn as much from them as they learn from me. Also, I’ve seen a shift with a lot of organizations’ and government agencies’ mind-set toward the importance of soil health. They now provide educational training opportunities for farmers and their own employees, and the University of Minnesota has worked right alongside them. So, instead of having one source saying this is a good practice, there are more voices, research, and educational opportunities that have similar messages. That greatly increases the capacity to change.

SF: What’s next?

JD: This year, I applied for a grant for sugar beets to help farmers keep the soil covered. With root crops, it’s difficult to keep residue after harvest, so my goal is to figure out how to do this.

SF: Has the emphasis on soil health in recent years encouraged more farmers to consider reducing tillage or using cover crops?

JD: Yes, I think it gives them more tools in the toolbox. We need to keep the soil covered. The question is do you do that with crop residue or with green material (cover crops)? Well, green material is probably better because there are a few more benefits, but you start where you can. Both are ways to give farmers more tools. It’s almost like a puzzle. Some of them are putting it together, and they are having fun with it. I haven’t seen this amount of enthusiasm in a long time. 

SF: What steps should farmers take to improve soil health?

JD: 1. Start small, but just try. 2. Give it more than one year, because Mother Nature can change everything. 3. There are lots of different ways to improve soil health, so I encourage farmers to think outside the box.

SF Bio

Name: Jodi DeJong-Hughes

Title: Regional educator at the University of Minnesota Extension

Education: Undergraduate degree in soil conservation and management at Colorado State and a master’s degree at Iowa State University in soil fertility

Family: DeJong-Hughes and her husband, Jesse, live in Danvers, Minnesota, with their children Olivia, 17, and Amelia, 13. Son Brandon, 30, lives in New Ulm, Minnesota.

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