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.
View the latest edition of our soil health newsletter. View the Newsletter
We host a variety of events throughout the year including coffee convos and the soil health awards. Event Schedule
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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.
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.
Ben Wickerham joined The Nature Conservancy in August of 2015 to serve as project assistant for the Saginaw Bay Watershed Conservation Initiative. Ben has over twelve years of experience delivering conservation programs throughout Michigan.
Rebecca is a conservation associate on our Soil Health & Nutrients team. In addition to program coordination, Rebecca is responsible for external affairs and field work for the Saginaw Bay program. She brings 16+ years experience at TNC to the team.
Joel has worked alongside TNC as a critical partner delivering the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance (MAEAP) program in the Saginaw River Watershed. He currently serves as a conservation associate on the Soil Health & Nutrients team.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Conservation Excellence Agribusiness Award
Lisa Woodke, Star of the West Milling Co., Frankenmuth. The Conservation Excellence Agribusiness Award is given to an agribusiness professional who has shown exemplary support and participation in agricultural conservation efforts.
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.
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!
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!
Farmer-led Watershed Groups
A farmer-led watershed group or FLWG is a grassroots gathering of local farmers and land managers from the same general area. Click on the boxes to learn about the FLWGs in Michigan's Saginaw Valley region.
Includes portions of Bay county and Northern Saginaw County (East of Saginaw River). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Thumb Area FLWG
Meetings are held within Huron County and surrounding areas in the Northern Thumb. Contact email@example.com for more info.
South Saginaw FLWG
Meetings are held within the Southern Saginaw and Northern Shiawassee County area. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
East Saginaw FLWG
Meetings are held within eastern Saginaw and western Tuscola Counties (primarily Cass River Watershed). Contact email@example.com for more info.
Genesee County FLWG
Meetings are held within the Flint River Watershed. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Watch our web series of farmer stories.
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
MSU-IWR Mapping Sensitive Area Tool
Evaluate fields, generate reports, and protect sensitive areas. Learn More
A whole farm and ranch carbon and greenhouse gas accounting system. Learn More
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
A platform for visualizing how past and future management changes soil organic carbon stocks globally. Learn More