Progress in Soy States

Soy farmers across the 30 primary soy-producing states and the 26 correlating state soybean affiliates are heavily involved in ongoing demonstrations of sustainability and conservation practices–to the point that quantifying them is nearly impossible.

Here, we offer but a few examples to convey soy’s widespread commitment to sustainability both nationally and across the soybean states:

  • Soy farmers regularly participate in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a voluntary program that contracts with agricultural producers so that environmentally sensitive agricultural land is not farmed or ranched, but instead devoted to conservation benefits. An example would be planting field borders with native grasses or approved trees to promote wildlife habitat, soil, and water health.
  • Another program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), encourages partnerships to increase the restoration and sustainable use of soil, water, wildlife and related natural resources on regional or watershed scales.
  • Several state soybean associations are partners in RCPP programs.
  • Soy farmers and state soybean associations in numerous soybean-producing states are actively involved in the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), a farmer-led initiative fostering transformation and sustainability in agriculture through improved soil health. SHP is the National Corn Growers Association’s flagship sustainability program. It has grown from less than two dozen farms in 2014 to more than 225 across 16 states in 2019.
    • SHP helps determine how farmers can more feasibly adopt best soil health practices.
    • Field managers work with farmers as they consider varieties and hybrids for cash and cover crops, nutrient management, and tillage in their soil health management systems.
    • Examples of soy industry involvement in the SHP include Soy Health Field Days held by state soy affiliates and soy farmers across the states committed to SHP practices.
    • The Partnership’s first Cover Crop Planting Report was released July 2020:
      • The study shows that farmers are using diverse strategies to plant cover crops and a variety of plant species to accomplish their soil health goals.
      • The most significant finding was that, although more than half of farmers planted their cover crops between mid-September and beginning of November, almost 40% planted before or after these dates. In addition, 25% of farmers interseeded or overseeded the cover crop into a standing cash crop.
      • This means farmers are using a wide range of strategies to get cover crops out on their fields, especially in higher latitudes where there are timing and labor constraints to getting a cover crop in after harvest.
      • The most widely planted cover crop species was cereal rye. Of the farmers who planted a single species, 80% planted cereal rye, and it was also present in 50% of cover crop mixes.
      • Cereal rye is popular because it produces a large amount of biomass, which can keep soil in place, scavenge residual nitrogen, or provide weed-suppressing residue depending on the cover crop goals.
  • Soy farmers and state affiliates also work with their local universities and Cooperative Extension Service staff to support and implement research projects and field trials aimed at improving sustainable farm practices. Keep reading for more examples from the states.
  • Keep reading for a sampling of state-by-state efforts below, and flip over to our Conservation Legacy Award page for even more fine examples of sustainability and conservation in action across the soy growing regions.

Beyond state and federal conservation and sustainability programs, companies are finding ways to aid or incentivize farmers for implementing best practices, including cutting-edge technology.

  • Companies may reward farmers who help them remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it instead to enrich their soils. For example, Indigo, a natural microbiology and digital technology company, pays farmers $15-$20 per ton of carbon they sequester through using regenerative tools like cover crops, no-till, diverse crop rotation and integrating livestock. Carbon space competitor Nori, in its 2020 pilot program, is offering a similar producer credit.
  • Truterra, started by farmer-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes, is building conservation tools that allow farmers, ag retailers, and food companies to measure sustainability progress and trends in real time. The Truterra Insights Engine is an interactive online dashboard that farmers can use in the field to determine precise soil, water quality, and other critical business and sustainability measurements. The company is currently working with Microsoft to develop additional ag technology tools to streamline grower data aggregation and create the supply side of a scalable carbon credit market.
  • These are but a very few examples and are not meant as endorsements or to be exclusive.

More Examples of Commitments from State to State

Arkansas Discovery Farms (ARDF) – a program geared toward monitoring and evaluating water quality in runoff from various agricultural production systems. The program assesses the need for best-management practices related to water conservation, as well as reduction of nutrient and sediment loss. Information gathered from this project provides a knowledge base to help address larger-scale issues.

Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP) is another state-based group providing resources for farmers to gain value from conservation practices. The partnership offers educational materials and technical assistance, including its S.T.A.R. Program through the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). S.T.A.R. helps farmers adopt new practices and begin the journey to improved soil health with a long-term plan for sustainability and profitability.

Many Illinois soy growers are participating in a program introduced by Illinois Department of Agriculture in 2019 encouraging farmers to seed fall cover crops and receive a $5 per acre insurance premium discount in return. The small reward incentivizes growers to increase cover crops on their land, making the farms more sustainable through improved soil health and water quality while mitigating economic risk. The Cover Crop Premium Discount Program applies to acreage verified as using Midwest Cover Crop Council Cover Crop Tool recommendations.

Indiana Soy Alliance (ISA) is a partner of the Indiana Agriculture Nutrient Alliance, which is dedicated to keeping Indiana at the forefront of proactive nutrient management and soil health practices that improve farm viability and, ultimately, reduce nutrient loss to water. ISA works with its partners on:

  • Regularly performing soil sampling
  • Implementing nutrient management plans
  • Applying nutrients to frozen and snow-covered ground as a last resort
  • Applying nutrients at-planting or in-season
  • Implementing living cover on cropland acres year round
  • Implementing minimum tillage, strip-tillage or no-till practices

Soybean farmers truly care about wildlife! Here are great examples, from fish to the birds and the bees, from Iowa:

  • Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) has partnered with Syngenta, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Iowa State University and other organizations to help Iowa farmers create more habitat for the once-abundant Topeka shiner minnow – an indicator species – and the rusty-patched bumble bee.
  • Iowa farmers are helping restore four oxbows, or small wetlands, along a larger watershed to provide essential habitat for Topeka shiners. Along with the minnows, the area has started to see more fish, wood ducks and geese in the oxbows.
  • The oxbow restorations are an approved practice for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science-based framework to reduce nutrient loads in Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. Oxbow restorations are effective and relatively inexpensive. They remove little or no land from agricultural production and last for decades. Water quality improvements extend from the tiny fish to other living creatures, including people.
  • Recent studies show a 45% reduction in nitrate export of water entering oxbows from subsurface drainage tiles compared with water discharged directly to the adjacent stream.
  • Like Topeka shiners, rusty-patched bumble bees are a “canary-in-the-coal-mine” species. Their loss can indicate something else is wrong in the ecosystem.
  • ISA, Syngenta and Iowa Department of Natural Resources are helping by restoring pollinator habitat along timbered areas in eastern Iowa. They are following research-based protocols for success to restore the habitat for the rusty-patched bumble bee, starting with site preparation and selecting the right seed.
  • There are almost 4,000 species of wild bees in North America, so helping the rusty-patched bumble bee also helps other pollinators. Many of the pollinator plots are along bike trails or park space – not just farms – and provide habitat and human benefits!

Mississippi SIP – Irrigation is not a new idea to the South, but the way farmers approach it is. The Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board started the Sustainable Irrigation Project (SIP) to promote the use of efficient irrigation-management tools, such as PHAUCET, to reduce the amount of irrigation water applied. PHAUCET, or Pipe Hole and Universal Crown Evaluation Tool, is a computer program developed by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve the efficiency of existing furrow-irrigation systems.

The 2021 Climate Change and Missouri Agriculture report clearly identifies the marked impact of Missouri farmers’ efforts around soil conservation and climate change. In Missouri alone, investments into conservation practices over the last 30 years have translated into annual greenhouse gas emission reductions of more than 2.8 million tons of C02e–equal to roughly 640,000 passenger cars. That’s more than 25% of total passenger cars registered in Missouri and the equivalent of 6.3 billion road miles. In that same time, Missouri’s average soybean yield grew by roughly 66%. In addition to dramatically reducing GHG emissions without sacrificing production, farmers’ efforts have also helped keep soil in the field. Soil savings from on-farm practices like no-till and conservation tillage in Missouri have prevented erosion of 177 million tons of soil, equal to enough tandem axle dump truck loads of soil to circle earth more than three times. Broad areas the report identifies in which farmers are making contributions:

  • Improving crop production efficiency and yields, including through fewer inputs and trips across the field.
  • Expanding practices that have reduced nitrous oxide (N2O) soil emissions. Those practices include improved nitrogen management, soil health and conservation, and prioritizing nitrogen-fixing soybeans in their crop rotation.
  • Introducing farm practices proven to sequester carbon and practices to keep that carbon in the soil, removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil as elemental (C) carbon.

Missouri Soybeans supports Missouri Farmers Care, including being a primary sponsor of MFC’s annual conservation award, the Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation, inspires other landowners through their example, and helps the general public understand the vital role private landowners can and do play in conservation success. Additionally, Missouri Soybeans actively reminds soy farmers to “Cover some Ground” and otherwise stay active in their sustainability and conservation commitments. The University of Missouri strip trial program works with farmers to validate management decisions and document efficiency and environmental stewardship. Funded in large part by the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, the program has completed close to 200 trials on Missouri fields since 2016, with a quarter of those focused on cover crops. Extension professionals work with farmers and use drones to collect information that can generate a yield map and compare treatment outcomes. Also worth checking out, how Missouri’s new Center for Soy Innovation is a tangible demonstration of soybean farmers’ investments in sustainability, from soy-based building materials to native plantings, soil management and water quality work.

Nebraska SoyWater – Nebraska soybean farmers’ use of irrigation has steadily increased over time. Irrigated soybean acreage now accounts for about 45% of the state’s total production area. The Nebraska Soybean Board funded research through James Specht, Ph.D., at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to develop a web-based water-management tool called SoyWater. This interactive application uses probes and weather-station data to help farmers determine when they need to irrigate and how much water they need to apply.