Field trip to South Dakota impresses reps from Environmental Defense Fund

Understanding importance of soil health practices, conservation enhances collaboration

Connie Sieh Groop
Special to the Farm Forum

Fields around Chester, SD, like many areas of South Dakota, are soaking wet.

Recent rains have farmers concerned about getting crops harvested this fall and what yields will be.

Keith Alverson believes the soil health practices on their farm using reduced tillage helped him get most of his acres planted this spring.

As society demands sustainability in agriculture, an environmental group visited his farm to learn what’s happening on the ground level.

Suzy Friedman, senior director, and Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager, with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Washington, D.C., talked to producers, visited fields of corn and learned about the precision ag equipment at the Alverson farm.

Through his terms on the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council, the South Dakota Corn Growers, and the National Corn Growers Board, Alverson worked with several national environmental groups. He now serves on the Farmers Advisory Board for the EDF.

This group met with the representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund’s visit this summer. From left are: Laron Krause; Maddy Rabenhorst, field manager with the Soil Health Partnership; Mark Gross; Gary Duffy; Lisa Richardson; Doug Noem; Callie Eidebert, EDF senior policy manager; Peter Magner, National Corn Growers Association’s manager of renewable fuels; Suzy Friedman, EDF senior director; Dave Ellens; Keith Alverson; Teddi Mueller; Jim Ristau; Justin Minnaert; Ron Alverson; Brian Jennings, American Coalition for Ethanol CEO. Those names without titles are on the SD Corn boards or part of the SD Corn staff. Courtesy photo

“I’ve known Keith and his dad Ron for five years,” said Suzy in a phone interview. “This was the first time we’ve visited their farm. Keith walked us through the management practices they implement that enhance productivity. They shared how they manage through times with too little water and the unpredictable heavy rain received this year by practices such as reduced tillage and ridge-till. The corn stover he leaves on the fields improves organic matter and soil structure.”

The Alversons provide precision nutrient management by using variable rate applications. When installing sub-surface irrigation on one field, the Alversons enhance nutrient management through drip irrigation and help manage the water on that field.

Alverson showed the system to those with EDF, saying, “We’re putting the nutrients right at the root level. It’s like giving each plant a tiny IV line.”

“One of the impressive things was that because of their management, the Alversons planted 95 percent of their acres this year because of improved soil health,Friedman said."To me, that really shows the benefits.”

Corn roots and earthworms create channels that increase infiltration and water holding capacity. That pays off in a year like this.

Keith Alverson of Chester talks with Doug Noem, Laron Krause, Callie Eidebert, Jim Ristau, Suzy Friedman and Peter Magner about precision ag practices used on the Alverson farm. Courtesy photo

“We were struck by how front and center management and conservation practices were to recognizing the importance of resiliency to manage the land through extreme weather," Friedman said, speaking from the EDF perspective.

Besides visiting the Alversons, Friedman and Eideberg met with David Clay, Professor Plant Science, and others from South Dakota State University, the South Dakota Corn Growers and the American Coalition of Ethanol.

A study using information from the SDSU soil testing lab that shows a steady trendline of increasing organic matter was discussed. Another study is a meta-analysis that Dr. Clay is working on with Jane Johnson and others from USDA-ARS bringing in multiple studies on organic matter levels.

“Clearly, the environment is the top priority for all these groups,” Friedman said. “They have been working hard to get the research and data to show the economic benefits. These are the approaches we are interested in, to look at how the economics and profitability can align with environmental outcomes. We believe sustainable management can play a key role in a vibrant agricultural system and ag community.

“It was impressive to see how connected the research is to farmers,” she added. “This was an opportunity to dig into the research, and we are very hopeful to work together. We learned an enormous amount and want to collaborate and look at opportunities to support policies which reward practices by farmers and will look for ways to collaborate with grower associations, farmers, universities, and state and federal agencies.”

A variety of voices need to tell how food is produced.

In the fall 2017, Keith and Ron Alverson installed a subsurface drip irrigation system on some of their land. Keith explained how the system works to the EDF women when they were out in his field. Courtesy photo

“I wish we had a magic wand to make this understood by the growing numbers of environmental organizations," she continued. "We are working to develop a collaborative approach which includes more voices from the ag and conservation communities.”

One way this ties into ethanol is working with officials in California, which has a low-carbon fuel standard. This requires a reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels sold, supplied or offered for sale in the state by a minimum of 10% by 2020.

Alverson explained that California LCFS pays ethanol plants more for their ethanol for lower carbon intensity ethanol. As a result, all ethanol plants track their carbon emissions closely. Around half the of the carbon emissions attributed to ethanol come from corn production. The major emissions during corn production are manufacturing of fertilizer, fertilizer emissions, and assumed carbon emissions from tillage.

“If we can convince the California Air Resources Board (administrators of the LCFS) that we as farmers can consistently sequester carbon with our farming practices our hope is that we can receive a premium for our corn through value-added ethanol," Alverson said. "If this is achieved then that added value would be an incentive to be more efficient with nitrogen application and encourage conservation because of the resulting carbon reductions.

“The more the environmental groups can get out to the countryside, the better off we are,” he said. “There will be more opportunities to collaborate as we go into future Farm Bill discussions and as we deal with any regulatory issues going forward.”

Chester farmer Keith Alverson and Suzy Friedman, EDF, look at some of this year’s corn and discuss farming practices. In the back is Jim Ristau, South Dakota Corn’s sustainability director. Courtesy photo