Two hands hold health soil.
Hands In Soil Two hands hold a mound of healthy soil. © Mike Wilkinson

Stories in Kentucky

Soil Health

Teaming up with local farmers and other partners for healthy soils, waters and livelihoods.

In recent years, a monumental shift in thinking about crop production has taken root. That is because science has revealed naturally-occurring biological processes, happening underground, that build the overall health and quality of our soils. Recognizing this has led to new tools and practices aimed at restoring and promoting the health of our soils, and reducing the need for commercially-produced amendments--such as fertilizer and herbicide applications--to control troublesome weeds and other nuisances.

A farmer stands next to a rows of tall corn stalks.
Kentucky Cornfield The Nature Conservancy works with farmers in Kentucky to implement conservation practices that benefit soil health. © Mike Wilkinson

In Kentucky, improving the health of our soils, especially on working farmlands, plays out in the Green River Basin where The Nature Conservancy has been actively working for two decades. The most visible evidence of this “quiet revolution" can be witnessed through the use of wintertime cover crops, where a blanket of living vegetation is placed atop bare, brown harvested fields to create lush, green pastures that nourish soils, support wildlife and reduce erosion into local waterways.

In this region, where approximately half of the land is dedicated to some form of agriculture. achieving enduring conservation means working cooperatively with local farmers and farm agency representatives on mutually-desirable outcomes. This effort to advance practical knowledge and implement practices to promote soil health is specifically playing out at two special properties in Hart and Taylor counties.

A river flows past farms and forests.
Green River The Green River in Kentucky flows past a landscape of forests and farms. © Mike Wilkinson

A Young Farmer Steps Up

In Hart County, TNC holds a permanent conservation easement on a riverside farm near the confluence of the Green River and Lynn Camp Creek. While the most sensitive lands on this farm are protected as naturally-vegetated wildlife habitat, agricultural activity is expressly permitted on upland acres further removed from the river.

This property's landowner is not a farmer. But he leases his land to Casey Flanders, a young farmer who is always looking to innovate and learn. In 2016, TNC's Green River project director, Mike Hensley, reached out to Flanders to inquire about partnering to investigate the merit of using cover crops for soil health.

Hensley and Flanders agreed to collaborate on planting cover crops on a 15-acre field. They also planned to sample soils to measure changes over time. Even in dry conditions following the planting, the cover crop took hold. A carpet of green covered the field through the winter months, with a late push of vigorous growth in the spring.

As Flanders prepared to terminate the cover crop and plant corn with the arrival of Spring, he could not have been happier with the project, saying, “I’ve been pleased with how the cereal rye worked during the off season. It was a welcome site to see a green field in the dead of winter with fewer early season weeds compared with other crop fields that were left bare. The benefits were significant enough to convince me to widen this practice at home and at other lease farms.”

According to Hensley, "Working with a farmer like Casey, who is willing to experiment with soil health practices and learn on his own and with organizations like TNC—all with the goal of doing right by the soil and the water while still making a good living off the land—represents one of the best parts of my job."

Two men study a document in front of a corn field.
Conservation Partners TNC's Green River Project Manager, Mike Hensley, and local farmer Casey Flanders, work together on conservation practices that benefit soils. © Mike Wilkinson

Progress at Homeplace

Farther east in Taylor County, Homeplace on the Green River is also working with TNC. Homeplace is a unique working farm owned and operated as a cooperative between Green, Adair and Taylor counties. TNC holds a permanent conservation easement on the property that ensures the farm will remain a farm, which also serves as a showcase for sustainability and shared learning. (In February 2016, the Kentucky’s state senate confirmed Homeplace as “Kentucky’s Outdoor Classroom.”)

While more widely-embraced practices like no-till farming and grass waterways have been in place at Homeplace for many years, the farm had never engaged in practices specifically meant to improve soil health. In 2015 and 2016, Homeplace enthusiastically embraced the idea and began working with TNC to utilize cover crops on some fields while continuing to farm other fields without using cover crops. Annual soil testing will document notable changes within the soils of both the cover cropped and non-cover cropped fields.

“I’ve spoken to dozens of Kentucky farmers and every single one agrees that winter season cover crops lead to less soil loss, fewer weeds during the following growing season and the return of more organic matter to soil, than fields without winter season cover crops," says Billy Fudge, a Homeplace trustee and volunteer who assists with managing the property's dual purpose as a working farm and venue for agricultural education. "But I am curious to know whether such practices result in a profitable operation.”

Four people observe a green, open field.
Partners In Conservation Representatives from the NRCS, University of Kentucky and TNC examine a cereal rye planting on a Kentucky farm. © The Nature Conservancy/Mike Hensley

Rapid Response

In response to concerns expressed by Billy Fudge, and by others, TNC is collaborating with colleagues in Tennessee, and with partners such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, to promote sustainable agriculture while gathering evidence that such practices benefit soil health and profitabile farming operations.

“The science behind soil health could be more robust,” Hensley says. “At every local field day and workshop, our farmers are telling us they’d be more likely to try new practices if there was more data showing what works. We’re listening to them and taking action.”

TNC is also partnering with the University of Kentucky’s Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky to better understand the agricultural industry's supply chain, especially for four commodities: corn, soybeans, beef and poultry. Examining the supply chain--from purchasing seed and fertilizer to a product's final destination--helps with identifying areas for improving farm profitability while pursuing important environmental outcomes like clean water and healthier, more productive soils.

“We’re excited to listen and learn from our agricultural community,” says Hensley. “Working with farmers, the agriculture industry and other partners helps us better understand current processes and how we can contribute to a better future for all.”

We need to adopt cover cropping for healthy soils across our state and nation to proactively build up the quality of our soil, reduce negative impacts to water quality and to mitigate impacts of a changing climate.

Green River Project Director for The Nature Conservancy