Partnering for Soil Health : Sorghum Farmers are Collaborating with NRCS to Improve Soil Health

The correlation between conservation and low-carbon fuels has led to a partnership between National Sorghum Producers and the NRCS to develop a software platform which will be used to track the type of conservation and sustainability information farmers and NRCS staff need for conservation planning and California Low Carbon Fuel Standard administrators need for verifying carbon footprints.

Article By John Duff

For over a decade, U.S. agriculture has been struggling to understand sustainability. While many unanswered questions about how much consumers are willing to pay for sustainability remain, markets like the one driven by the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) have helped define the term. Fortunately, the conservation and stewardship practices employed by thousands of sorghum farmers each year are rewarded in the carbon footprint models that underlie California’s LCFS. This means adoption of these practices is rewarded through higher demand for grain in addition to positive environmental outcomes for farms and rural communities.

Given this connection between two of the most important policy areas for sorghum farmers (i.e., conservation and low carbon fuels), a partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was a logical step. Early in 2019, National Sorghum Producers initiated conversations with the Kansas NRCS office, based in Salina, Kansas, and in late February applied for a Conservation Collaboration Grant. The agreement was made official early in the fall of 2019, and work on the project has already begun.

The project will center on the development of a software platform, the Kansas Conservation in Agriculture with Technology (KansCAT) platform, which will be used to track the type of conservation and sustainability information farmers and NRCS staff need for conservation planning and LCFS administrators need for verifying carbon footprints. Information on farm practices will be collected from at least 75,000 acres in areas of Kansas where farmers supply ethanol markets, and this information will be used to quantify carbon footprints for farmers, NRCS staff as well as LCFS administrators.

Why are conservation and stewardship practices rewarded in carbon footprint models? The answer lies in fertility—from how fertilizer is applied, to the timing of applications, to the specific fertilizers used. Not surprisingly, nitrogen is the most important fertilizer in this case as 80 percent of the footprint of farming is driven by applications of the element. This fact owes to the dual impact nitrogen has on the footprint: First, nitrogen fertilizer production is a very carbon intensive process, and a large portion of these carbon emissions must follow the grain through the supply chain. Second, after nitrogen fertilizer is applied, a portion of it leaves the field through runoff, leaching and volatilization, and all of these emissions must follow the grain through the supply chain, as well.

What other practices are rewarded in both conservation programs and carbon footprint models? Fortunately, the list doesn’t stop at fertility. Sorghum farmers have historically taken full advantage of the benefits offered through conservation programs, and this is undoubtedly due in large part to the fact sorghum farmers are some of the nation’s most conservation conscious. For example, sorghum leads among crops in the area of conservation tillage adoption with 74 percent of sorghum acres annually being cared for using conservation tillage. Not only does conservation tillage mean less need for carbon-intensive fuel usage, but it also means healthy soil, as well. What does healthy soil mean? As you might have guessed, it minimizes nitrogen requirements along with runoff, leaching and volatilization. In sorghum production, sustainability breeds sustainability.