Laser Focused on Soil Health

satellite flying on space

For farmers, nothing is more important than the soil and its health. Our crops are only as healthy as what they grow in. I’m happy to report that the soil on our farm is getting healthier every year.

As a farmer, I am laser focused on soil health. And anyone who eats food should understand the relationship between this most important natural resource and our ability to eat. There’s a direct connection everywhere in the world.

We must care for our soil as though it were a living, breathing organism. That’s why we’ve adopted a soil health management system. In the 21st century, that can mean checking on it using digital images that are collected from satellites. More prosaically, it also means using no-till and cover crops.

On our farm, we’ve joined the movement away from traditional tillage. We’ve also started to grow plants in our fields whose job is not just to produce food but rather to improve soil health.

A new report from the Soil Health Institute, a non-profit group based in North Carolina, suggests that farmers who adopt these practices can increase their yields and lower their costs. Soil health management systems boosted net income for 85 percent of corn growers and 88 percent of soybean growers, according to the institute’s research.

Yet most farmers remain committed to the ways of their parents and grandparents. Only 37 percent of the tillable acreage in the United States is part of a no-till system. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of farmland benefits from cover cropping. These rates are rising, but they’re rising slowly.

I understand the reluctance. I’ve always felt we were doing right by our soils. But then we started using continuous no-till in 2014 and large scale cover crops in 2017. Now that we’ve enjoyed several seasons of experience this way, we’ve become big advocates for soil health management systems.

I used to think that tilling fields helped our soil. It turns out that our soil is better off when it’s not disturbed. No till keeps more organic material in the ground. It allows root structures to flourish. It promotes activity among earthworms and microbes. It locks in moisture. It guards against wind erosion that can blow away nutrients. It turns our fields into seedbeds that are ready for planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.

Cover crops add to the mix. They also protect the soil, helping crops in much the same way that mulching helps garden plants thrive. Some farmers think cover crops are only for organic growers. The truth is different: They’re for everybody, or at least potentially for everybody. Every farm is unique, and not every tool in our soil health management system will make sense for another farmer, whether that farm is in Iowa or India.

I see the evidence of our improvements on the ground but also from satellite photos taken of our farm. That’s just one part of a robust system of soil health management that also includes no-till and cover crops.

These tools are helping us grow more food on less land than ever before in Iowa.

This summer, we were dealing with the specific problem of how to apply fungicide—a crop-protection product that improves the ability of plants to fight the fungus that can introduce disease. In years past, we’ve put it on all our crops as a safeguard. This year, however, we were growing plants that carried a hybrid trait that helped with resistance.

We used satellite images to show us precisely where protection was needed. Their perspective from high above gives us a new way to study our fields. They see things we can’t see with the naked eye here on earth.

In this case, they showed us that many of our crops were resisting fungus on their own. Entire fields didn’t require the aid of a fungicide. We confirmed this finding with a scout—an expert who walks our land and knows what to look for—and then made our decision to withhold fungicide from the crops that didn’t need it.

This helped us save money. Even better, it kept our soil as healthy as possible. It was another success of our soil health management system. This same kind of technology can be used to verify to the supply chain and consumers that these soil health practices are being implemented.

I know it’s important to share information about how we grow food. Many of the people who eat it are generations away from their connection to the farm and the soil. And new technologies and practices might not be easy to understand. If anything, we should all remember that our ability to eat, and a farmer’s ability to make a living, is directly connected to the health of the soil. Caring for it is job one.


Nominations are being accepted for candidates to the 2022 Global Farmer Network Roundtable and Leadership Training. Tentatively scheduled to be held during spring 2022, the next Roundtable will include a virtual component prior to meeting in person in Germany. Learn more about the event here.

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Mark Heckman

Mark Heckman

Farming in West Liberty, Iowa, Mark Heckman volunteers as a board member and secretary for the Global Farmer Network and is past committee member for Iowa Corn and Advisor for the US Grains Council.  He and his family partnership farm raises corn and soybeans with a focus on soil health. The family farm also includes pork and cattle production. Heckman Farms uses technology that supports the sustainable use of hog and cattle manure while maintaining water quality standards and good relationships with his neighbors.  His businesses utilize chemistry and microbials to enhance natural systems produce more products for safer and more abundant food.

Mark is focused on improving sustainable production of food, feed, and fuel, and off-the farm is a Strategic Development Director for EcoEngineers of Des Moines, Iowa. Mark is a past member of the Soil Health Partnership and has dedicated much of his career assisting producers and companies focus on specialty markets and renewable fuels. He also has expertise in Strategic Risk Management, Commodity and Energy Procurement, Policy Development, and Raw Material Exposure Coverage.

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