Stories in Michigan

Soil Health in Saginaw Valley

Sunrise over farm field.
Saginaw Valley Sunrise The sun rises over a sugar beet field in the Saginaw Valley. © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative

Explore our soil health resources.

When it comes to healthy lands and waters, it all comes back to soil.

It’s easy to think of soil as “dirt,” but soil is so much more. It is a living system, rich in micro-organisms and nutrients, that sustains everything that grows on this green earth. The type of soil and its condition dictate what plants can grow, as well as how water flows and what it carries with it through the landscape. When it comes to healthy, thriving lands and waters—everything comes back to soil.

If you’re a farmer, you know your livelihood depends on healthy soils. But changing the way you farm can be risky and expensive, and a failed crop is hard to come back from. In Michigan’s agricultural watersheds, most notably the Saginaw Bay and western Lake Erie watersheds, The Nature Conservancy is working to encourage farmers—and make it easier—to shift to practices that restore and sustain long-term soil health and reduce harmful runoff. Ultimately, we all depend on clean water and fresh food. TNC believes that productive agriculture and healthy ecosystems can coexist if we address where they intersect: the soil.

Text over an image of soil. Healthy Soil: Cornerstone of Life. Biological Diversity, Food Production, Water Benefits, Carbon Storage.
Healthy Soil Healthy soil practices are the cornerstone of life. © The Nature Conservancy

Educational Resources

  • Green icon of a tractor.

    Upcoming Events

    We host a variety of events throughout the year including coffee convos and the soil health awards. Event Schedule

  • Green icon of plants.

    Become a Farm Advisor

    Use your knowledge to help other farmers tackle healthy soil practices by joining our Farmer Advisory Council. Contact Us

  • Green icon of three people.

    Work With Us

    Collaborate with us on Lunch & Learns, CEU's, field days, events, expos and more! Contact Us

Our Strategy

In Michigan’s agricultural watersheds, most notably the Saginaw Bay watershed and western Lake Erie basin, The Nature Conservancy is working to encourage farmers—and make it easier—to shift to practices that restore and sustain long-term soil health and reduce harmful runoff. 

Explore our strategies and resources to help you make the change.

Strategy Document (English)
Strategy Document (Spanish)

Previous Soil Health Coffee Convos

Missed previous Saginaw Bay Soil Health Coffee Conversations? Click on the tiles to access the recordings.

Contact Our Team

Our soil health team is here to help. Contact us to learn more about our programs, farmer resources or to get involved. 

Incentive Programs

Are you interested in taking strategic regenerative steps on your own farm? TNC is committed to connecting farmers with opportunities to build soil health. 
A red barn sits behind a field of sugar beets.
Sugar Beets Field in Saginaw Sugar beets are a common row crop in the Saginaw Bay Watershed in Michigan. © Jason Whalen/Fauna Creative

Incentive Program

Accessing Subsidized Strip-Till Equipment Trial (ASSET)

With Michigan Sugar Company, Environmental Tillage Systems and Blue Water Conservation District, TNC is piloting a program to help farmers access the equipment and the financial and technical support necessary to transition sugar beet acres to strip tillage. This program is supported by a USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant. TNC aims to enroll 10 farms over the next five years (2022-2026). 

To learn more, contact Ben Wickerham, TNC, 517-316-2286.

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A combine moves across a field at sunset.
Combine at Sunset These incentive programs are available for farmers interested in building their soil health. © Randall L. Schieber

Incentive Program

Sustainable Options: Wheat

With Star of the West, TNC is piloting a new initiative to improve resilience, biodiversity and soil health on wheat ground located within the Saginaw Bay Watershed. This wheat incentives program, and its associated “nature-based bonuses,” will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis to 5-15 farmers for the next three years (2022-2024). 

To learn more, contact Joel Leland, TNC, 989-277-4697, or Lisa Woodke, Star of the West, 517-648-9166.

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A view of cows through grass and flowers.
Dairy Cows Dairy operations exist across the U.S. and are an integral part of the global food system. © Preston Keres / USDA NRCS

Incentive Program

Dairy Feed-in-Focus

With the Michigan Milk Producers Association, TNC is developing a three-year Michigan incentives program that will work with 10 Michigan farmers a year to implement on-farm feed management strategies and feed crop production practices that reduce dairy cattle methane emissions and support soil health. This program is being piloted in Michigan and Wisconsin, in partnership with the U.S. dairy industry, as part of their Net Zero Initiative. 

To learn more, contact Joel Leland, TNC, 989-277-4697.

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Aerial view of road and buffer strip next to a field.
Buffer Strip in Saginaw Bay A buffer strip runs along the edge of an agricultural field in Michigan. © Fauna Creative

Incentive Program

Drain Projects

With Michigan Farm Bureau, the Saginaw County Public Works Commissioner and the Monroe County Drain Commissioner, TNC has received a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant for a BMP pilot project, with additional support from the Cook Family Foundation. The project partners are seeking to increase the use of BMPs by property owners to reduce sediment delivery into drains and improve water quality. The grant will assist with the costs of developing the program so that certain agricultural BMPs within drainage districts can be taken into consideration when assessing for drain projects.

For more information on the program contact Randy Dell, TNC.

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Plant, wheat and water icons. Text: Saginaw Bay Soil Health Hero. The Nature Conservancy.
Soil Health Heroes Recognizing the achievements of Saginaw Valley farmers.

Celebrating Soil Health Heroes

Each year, Michigan farms produce $13 billion worth of products, from corn to meat to dairy, and provide 22% of the state’s employment. With nearly half of Michigan's largest watershed—Saginaw Bay—in agricultural production, keeping soil and nutrients on the land and out of waterways is not only vital to the people and species that live here, but to our boating, fishing and tourist industries. 

We're recognizing the extraordinary achievements of Saginaw Valley farmers who work hard to protect water quality and soil health. Change is risky, but these Soil Health Heroes overcome those challenges to demonstrate a path forward for the healthy food and water systems we all depend on.

Soil Health Hero Highlights (1:35) We're celebrating the extraordinary achievements of our 2021 Soil Health Heroes.

2021 Awardees

TNC bestowed its 3rd generation of Soil Health Hero awards on January 27, 2022, at the Annual Great Lakes Crop Summit. A premier agricultural event, this program brings together thousands of community members to learn and share in the latest best practices, tools and resources—and to hear from innovators, like our Soil Health Heroes, that are leading the way in the industry.

To learn more about each awardee, download the program booklet, or watch the feature videos. Thank you to our selection committee and event sponsors: Cook Family Foundation, Star of the West and Carhartt.

Past Honorees

To learn about our past Soil Health Heroes, explore our video archive on Facebook.

Farmer Fact Sheet

Explore soil health practices used in the Saginaw Valley and learn how you can implement them.


Farmer Resources

We know that altering your farm’s operational management practices, equipment or fertility regime can be a daunting and uncertain challenge. Finite resources such as time, input costs and technical assistance can make changes difficult, especially when the speed of farming calls for quick decision-making. 

TNC’s Soil Health & Nutrient program connects farmers with the latest research, technical resources, peer networks, program offerings and even direct technical assistance at times—all to support farmers in this decision-making process.

Peer Networks

One great first step? Plug in to a local farmer-led watershed group (FLWG) in Michigan’s Saginaw Valley! An FLWG is a grassroots gathering of local farmers and land managers from the same general area—usually a watershed. These self-governed groups are led by farmers and driven by members (your neighbors)! They are independent of any particular organization or agency. 

Interested in starting a group?

We'll provide you with the resources to get started!

  • Logistical support
  • Free advertising materials
  • Stipends for meeting supplies
  • And more! 
Email or call 517-316-2268 to get started!

The primary focus of FLWGs is on collaboration and addressing specific needs of the local watershed, such as water quality, rural aesthetics and other local resource concerns.

In short, FLWGs represent a movement toward community ownership over local water quality issues. They are local citizens coming together, helping one another and taking proactive steps to manage and protect their watershed!

Check out the map below to connect to the nearest FLWG in your area. Or, if no FLWG exists in your area, please consider forming your own!

Join a group UI Element / Long Arrow Created with Sketch. UI Element / Return Created with Sketch. RETURN

From Farmer to Farmer, It's the Bay Way

Watch our web series of farmer stories


Explore these farmer resources to help you evaluate your fields.

  • Farm equipment in a field as the sun rises over the field.

    Great Lakes Watershed Management System

    A tool for evaluating, tracking, and reporting water quality and groundwater recharge improvements at watershed and field scales. Learn More

  • A river winds through a field in Michigan's Saginaw Valley.

    MSU-IWR Mapping Sensitive Area Tool

    Evaluate fields, generate reports, and protect sensitive areas. Learn More

  • Two people kneel in a field in Saginaw Valley and examine the soil.


    A whole farm and ranch carbon and greenhouse gas accounting system. Learn More

  • A person stands in a field with farm equipment in Michigan's Saginaw Valley.


    Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS), an automated system to map tillage, residue cover, winter cover, and soil health practices using remote sensing data. Learn More

  • Crops grow from the soil in a Saginaw Valley field in Michigan.

    Soils Revealed

    A platform for visualizing how past and future management changes soil organic carbon stocks globally. Learn More

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