The Natural Resources Conservation Service is reviving its focus on the conservation concern that led to its creation after the Dust Bowl: soil health. The service that provides federal and state technical conservation assistance on farms throughout the Chesapeake watershed is recasting its message of conservation to focus on this key ingredient to improved water quality, farm production and sustainability.

The service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture was originally called the Soil Conservation Service. It was established in the 1930s to prevent the soil erosion on U.S. farmland that led to the Dust Bowl.

But, as the country’s environmental concerns expanded over the years, the department, too, broadened its focus to include an array of natural resources and consulting with landowners on environmental concerns like polluted water runoff and wildlife habitat.

About a year ago, the NRCS announced a national soil health initiative, declaring its goal of improving the nation’s soil “one of the most important endeavors of our time.”

Virginia and other state offices of the NRCS have spent the last year looking at what this shift toward soil health means for their field operators. How do they educate farmers and landowners on a topic that Leonardo da Vinci once said is more complex and less understood than “the movement of celestial bodies?”

“It’s new packaging for our conservation message,” said Chris Lawrence, Virginia NRCS cropland agronomist, after presenting on the subject at the Virginia Farm-to-Table Conference on Dec. 5.

Because “NRCS doesn’t have all the answers,” Lawrence said the office plans to work with farmers and others in the field to research best practices, primarily through national and state Conservation Innovation Grants.

In fact, five of Virginia’s seven recently awarded CIG grants focus on soil health. Through these grants, the Piedmont Environmental Council, for example, will look at farm demonstrations of how livestock and pasture diversity can improve soil, and the Appalachian Sustainable Development will consider strip-tilling vegetables as a way to boost organic matter in soils.

The Virginia Forage and Grassland Council’s winter conference Jan. 27–30 will focus on the role of healthy soil in ruminant production.

Lawrence said his office plans to learn alongside these programs and with farmers how to rebuild the state’s soils that, in some places, have been farmed for 400 years.

While intensive agriculture in the early 1900s allowed topsoil to blow away from the farmland in the nation’s breadbasket states, the same plowing and monoculture cropping in the Virginia Piedmont led to water eroding massive gullies.

Agricultural practices have improved, but intensive land management and monoculture crops continue to deplete soils in many regions.

“We have this fundamentally altered the hydrology of degraded soil,” Lawrence said, adding that no-till and cover crop initiatives only take farmers so far. “How can we keep moving the growers beyond that?”

At the Virginia Farm-to-Table Conference, which focused on rebuilding local food systems that support better farming practices, Lawrence compared improving soils to improving human health. He said the best measure of soil health is to look at how well it’s able to function.

To demonstrate this, he poured water over two types of Virginia soils in long plastic tubes. Water pooled up on top of the soil that had been tilled frequently and, when it did pass through, it carried much of the soil with it. In the natural environment, this type of field would not absorb rainfall well, be easily eroded and contribute to poor water quality.

The soil with more organic matter that had not been tilled allowed the water to pass through quickly and clearly, almost like a filter.

Lawrence said afterward that this demonstrates the benefit of improved soils not only for the farmer but also for water quality.

Farmer Paul Davis of Davis Produce near Lynchburg said an educational trip to North Carolina 20 years ago convinced him of the importance of soil health. He was working for the Virginia Extension Office at the time and came back with visions of making the soil on his family farm “like chocolate cake.”

The farm stopped tilling in 1999 and began implementing cover crops in 2005 through a Conservation Innovation Grant.

“We found out what would work,” Davis told a group of farmers during a panel discussion at the conference. “Rye is like a junkyard dog; you can’t mess it up. Then we found out that hairy vetch does a great job growing through the winter and providing a whole lot of biomass and nitrogen.”

Farmers in the audience took notes and asked questions about mixed-species cover crops and organic matter.

Davis said having “something green and growing” on the farm at all times has helped increase the organic matter in his soils from 1.5 percent up to 3.5 percent.

Lawrence said Davis is a great example of what this shift toward soil health can accomplish among farmers.

“We think we can motivate farmers to another level by focusing on soil biology and health,” Lawrence said.

He held up an issue of John Deere’s magazine, The Furrow, as evidence that farmers are ready for this message. Several stories in the issue were devoted to the concept of improving soil health through practices like no-till — even though machines that till the earth are among the manufacturer’s products.

“This is evidence that farmers are interested,” Lawrence said.

Learn more about NRCS’ soil health programs here and see stories of no-till farmers in Virginia at GainingGroundVirginia.org.