Case Studies Examine Costs and Benefits of Improving Soil Health on California Farms

California_NRCS_Helping People Help the Land

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California is one of four states where new detailed economic analyses have been recently completed for farms that undertook significant soil health practices. Thanks to a partnership between NRCS and AFT using a Conservation Innovation Grant, the case studies are now available for farmers, conservationists, academics and others who wish to examine the costs and benefits associated with improving soil health on California farms.


Tom and Dan Rogers have adopted many conservation practices on their third- generation farm near Madera, Calif., now planted completely to almonds.  But, according to Tom, the more they did—irrigation management, nutrient management, conservation cover—the more they realized that “everything relates to the soil,” and they took on more.


“Once we started the soil health practices, we saw better water infiltration, yield, soil tilth and an explosion of earthworms. It was an affirmation of what we were doing right, or a measure of how poorly we were managing before,” says Tom.  As positive as these things are, business savvy farmers want to examine the economic nitty gritty—and those studies are hard to come by.


The new studies look at specific costs and benefits—from the increased costs on a per acre basis of chipping orchard pruning’s, applying manure and green waste, or sampling leaf tissues -- and balancing these with increased yields and savings on inputs such as fertilizer, water and pesticides.


The bottom line on the Rogers Farm? 10% higher yields, 55% lower fertilizer costs, 25% savings in water and pumping, 72% savings on pesticides, and—unbeknown to Tom Rogers—a 29% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions after approximately 10 years.


Okuye Farms in Merced is the site of the second California study. There Ralf Sauter took over the farm’s management 14 years ago from his mother-in-law, Jean Okuye, president of the East Merced RCD and a conservationist who had already brought cover crops, micro sprinklers, compost, owl boxes and hedgerows to the farm.


The study on the Okuye Farms looks at soil health conservation practices undertaken in the last 14 years including nutrient management, compost, conservation cover and mulching of orchard pruning’s. The net benefits in savings and increased yield total $657/acre—plus a planetary benefit of 16% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.


The adaptation of soil health practices paid off in the long run. They are not only financially benefiting but also helping the environment such as improvement of water & air quality, reducing the use of chemicals and carbon sequestration by using soil health practices.


Ralf Sauter

Ralf Sauter of Merced’s Okuye Farms says soil health practices are part of what makes his farm sustainable. A study reflects a $657/acre benefit from the practices. Photos Courtesy of American Farmland Trust


Tom Rogers

Tom Rogers of Madera saw a 551 Percent return on investment of four soil health practices, according to economics studies done by American Farmland Trust in a CIG study. Photos Courtesy of American Farmland Trust