AUSTIN, Minn. — Wednesday, June 13, 2018 — Research into healthier soil that could support new agricultural practices in the region is moving forward with the start of a three-year study in Mower County led by the local conservation district.
Today, Mower Soil & Water Conservation District joined officials from Riverland Community College and The Hormel Foundation to celebrate the start of the soil-health research project — a major aspect of their growing partnership to advance agricultural education and provide resources to farmers. They gathered at Riverland’s West Building on the Austin Campus at a new soil lab being developed by the college’s new Center of Agricultural and Food Science Technology.
Lacking an adequate research room at its Austin office, Mower SWCD reached out to Riverland for possible use of the new lab space. Now that lab — which will be fully equipped by late summer — has been getting used by Mower SWCD for storing and analyzing soil samples taken from dozens of plots representing different types of farmland in Mower County.
Mower SWCD’s certified soil scientist Steve Lawler is leading the research and soil sampling with paid staff and students from the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin-River Falls. A Riverland agricultural student also is assisting with the project as a Conservation Corps summer apprentice for Mower SWCD.
“The strong support and partnerships we now enjoy with Riverland and The Hormel Foundation have drawn interest across the state,” Lawler said. “Agriculture always has played a big role in Mower County and surrounding counties, and together our efforts will support farmers who are making changes to their agronomic practices.”
Interest in cover crops and other soil-health practices have been increasing in Mower County and southern Minnesota but many local farmers want more data and scientific evidence before making changes in their fields, Lawler said.
“Riverland has established a strong tradition of partnerships related to agricultural needs facing our region,” said Adenuga Atewologun, Riverland president. “As an educational partner, a research project like this incorporates a major step toward our overall vision for the Agriculture and Food Science Technology Center. We are so grateful to The Hormel Foundation and Mower SWCD for making this project possible. Our students will benefit from learning experiences like this.”
One soil-health practice is cover cropping, which involves planting a second, unharvested crop in coordination with regular cash crops, such as corn and soybeans. Other soil-health practices include only tilling strips on a field before planting — a type of minimum tillage — and no tilling to reduce erosion.
Mower SWCD has been leading a soil-health initiative since 2015 when it hired Lawler, who has more than 30 years of applied soil science in the field. In a previous role, Lawler also produced a soil survey of Mower County in the 1980s.
In 2017, Mower SWCD was approved for a $98,000 grant from The Hormel Foundation to conduct soil-health research to look at the benefits of incorporating cover crops and other soil-health practices into farm operations. About $200,000 overall, the project will match the Foundation’s grant with state “capacity” funds given annually by the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) and in-kind services from partner agencies.
The study will establish baseline data and start measuring soil-property changes over time as soil-health practices are incorporated. Researchers will quantify typical soil properties in ag use before land-use changes to measure varied conditions.
This project also will provide important data that can be incorporated in evaluating farms and the land-use decisions being made for ag land, Lawler said, adding that it also should help the soil-health movement gain traction in the ag community.
This past March, Riverland Community College hosted the nationally touring speaker Ray Archuleta, known as “The Soil Guy,” for a free cover crops/soil health event coordinated by Mower SWCD and the Land Stewardship Project.
In the past year, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program funded a nationwide survey on cover crops with farmers, who reported increased crop yields and improved control of herbicide-resistant weeds. Acreage planted in cover crops also now has nearly doubled in the past five years nationwide.
Riverland Community College
Riverland Community College, a member of the Minnesota State system, is a community college that inspires personal success through education. Approximately 9,000 students are served annually through a wide range of credit-based educational opportunities and non-credit courses. Campuses are located in Albert Lea, Austin and Owatonna, Minn. Riverland may be found on the Internet at www.riverland.edu. Minnesota State, formerly known as Minnesota State Colleges and Universities includes 30 community and technical colleges and seven state universities serving approximately 400,000 students. It is the fifth-largest higher education system in the United States.
Mower Soil & Water Conservation District
Since 1953, Mower SWCD has provided land and conservation services to Mower County landowners to help manage lands in a way that promotes a sound economy as well as sustains and enhances natural resources that are key to the state’s environmental health. Mower SWCD is one of Minnesota’s 89 SWCDs each are governed by an elected board.