Nebraska corn crop.
Nebraska Corn Crop The NRCS award will help farmers improve soil health. © Chris Helzer/TNC

Food & Water Stories

Improving Soil Health for Resilient Farms and Clean Waters

Farm Bill funding helps Nebraska farmers adopt key conservation practices.

Nebraska is called the Cornhusker State with good reason. It’s the number three state in corn production in the U.S., and number one in popcorn production. The Platte River Valley region of central Nebraska is major contributor to the state’s corn production as well as soybeans, wheat, cattle production and more. Fed by the Platte River, the Big Blue River and the Ogallala Aquifer, central Nebraska boasts some of the some of the most fertile farmland anywhere.

This important farming region is the focus of a federally funded conservation project, headed by The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. In April 2020, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced that the project, “Resilient Futures for Nebraska Soil,” was selected for significant funding through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

RCPP, a federal program, was created in the 2014 Farm Bill to focus on watershed-level resource concerns and to help more members of the agricultural community adopt conservation practices in areas that need it the most. RCPPs bring together partners and additional funding to maximize on-the-ground impact.

Platte River.
Platte River Channel Central Nebraska’s productive farmland is located in the watersheds of Platte River and the Big Blue River. Soil health practices can help keep nutrients on farm fields and out of these rivers. © Chris Helzer/TNC

Working with Farmers to Improve Soil Health

In the project, TNC, supported by project partners, including two Natural Resources Districts in the region, will collaborate with farmers in central Nebraska in the adoption of soil health practices—cover crops, reduced tillage and diversified crop rotations—on an estimated 100,000 acres over five years.

The $4.4 million award from NRCS is being matched by companies in the agricultural supply chain—Cargill, McDonald's and Target—and will provide farmers in central Nebraska with technical and financial assistance as they adopt soil health practices. The partnership also plans to report on the economic and social outcomes of the project.

Soil health practices have been shown to bring significant sustainability benefits to farmers, such as lowering their costs, improving yields, reducing soil erosion and increasing their farmland’s resilience to extreme weather events. There are significant environmental benefits as well.  It’s estimated that during the five-year span of this project these practices will help store 150,000 metric tons of carbon, prevent 375,000 tons of erosion and deliver significant water quality benefits.

“Soil health is critical to keeping Nebraska’s farm and ranchland productive and profitable,” says NRCS Nebraska State Conservationist Craig Derickson. “We are excited to work with The Nature Conservancy and other partners to help improve soil and natural resources in Nebraska.”

Soybeans and Cover Crops.
Soybeans and Cover Crops. Cover crops grown in the off-season protect and enrich the soil, and they reduce excess nutrient runoff. Here soybeans are emerging through cover crop residue in a Nebraska farm field. © Ron Nichols/USDA-NRCS

Connecting to Carbon Markets

Alongside the adoption of soil health practices, farmers in the project will be connected to carbon markets through the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC), a group of private-sector companies and nonprofit organizations that are working to advance the development of a market-based approach to promoting land stewardship to build healthy soils, soil carbon sequestration and water conservation on farm and ranch lands. TNC is a founding member of ESMC, which seeks to create market-based systems to pay farmers for their conservation efforts as a way to scale up conservation practice adoption.

Quote: Hannah Birgé, Ph.D.

This project will leverage private and public resources to amplify the good work of Nebraska farmers as they scale up soil health practice adoption.

Director of Agriculture for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska

Paying Farmers for Healthy Outcomes

“Big companies are looking to improve their environmental footprints in measurable and trackable ways, and farmers can improve the environment in measurable and trackable ways when they adopt soil health practices. The Ecosystem Services Market Consortium connects the two and creates a way to pay farmers for their outcomes,” says Debbie Reed, director of the ESMC. “We are excited to ground truth our methodologies through this project with central Nebraska farmers.”

Partners in the project include the Upper Big Blue and Central Platte Natural Resources Districts. 

“We know that healthy cropland soils boost fertility, improve water quality, and stabilize global climate,” says Dr. Hannah Birgé, Director of Agriculture for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. “This project will leverage private and public resources to amplify the good work of Nebraska farmers as they scale up soil health practice adoption.

“Soil health brings people together in amazing ways,” she adds. “We are overjoyed with the diverse team that’s come together around a shared vision of healthy soils in Nebraska and beyond.”