Farmers Organize For a Cause

A South Dakota group educates about soil health.

South Dakota farmers and agency leaders are proving what’s possible when people work together for a common cause.

About three years ago, folks concerned with soil health launched the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. This grass-roots group is led by a nine-member board of directors, all farmers. Agency professionals provide guidance.

Focusing like a bloodhound, the group has drawn interest and support from across the state and outside its borders. A recent meeting drew 400 participants. The group’s annual soil health schools are booked to capacity – and then some.

“We try to limit enrollment in the schools to 30 people,” says Dennis Hoyle, a Roscoe, South Dakota, farmer and coalition chairman. “Last September, we had 41 people sign up. Overenrollment is a wonderful problem to have!”

Soil Health Education

I have heard it estimated that our soils on the Northern Plains have lost 50% of their organic matter,” says Hoyle. “I want to bring the level of organic matter on our farm back to where it was before the land was broken out of grassland. I want to make the soil as good as it can be.”

Such was the vision of all the founders of the Soil Health Coalition. The path they’ve followed to spread their vision to farms across the state gives an organizational blueprint for like-minded groups to follow. Here’s how they did it.

  • Spread the idea by word of mouth. The idea for forming a producer-led soil health group came from Jeff Zimprich, NRCS South Dakota State conservationist. He contacted conservation-minded farmers, who contacted others.
  • Received help from an experienced group to launch an organizational meeting. “We approached the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, and that group’s board decided to assist with the project by holding an organizational meeting,” says Hoyle.
  • Elected key farmers to the board. The seven-member board of directors of the newly formed South Dakota Soil Health Coalition was led by longtime soil health advocate Doug Sieck. Also a member of the Grassland Coalition, Sieck drew on previous organizational experience to work alongside other board members in getting the new group off the ground.
  • Borrowed the structure of another group. “The Grassland Coalition was important in our formation because it already had by-laws, for instance” says Hoyle. “We didn’t have to spend a lot of time reinventing something that another group had already put in place. In a lot of ways, we just copied it for a while, and then we took it from there.”
  • Watched for funding opportunities. Private donations helped the group get started. Grants provided additional funding. “Now, organizations come to us and ask how they can help,” says Hoyle.
  • Engaged employees. With the hiring of coordinator Josh Lefers, who was followed by organization coordinator Cindy Zenk and communications coordinator Sarah Fitzgerald, outreach activities have mushroomed. Besides hosting meetings and soil health schools, the coalition donates soil health buckets to Future Farmers of America groups around the state. Lesson plans for instructors are included.

The engagement of additional employees to potentially assist with research and test plots is the group’s goal. “These will all be boots-on-the ground people who – along with our members who serve as soil-health mentors – will spread the word that healthy soil is alive!”says Hoyle.

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