The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill this week including provisions aimed at promoting soil health.
These provisions include funding for a new USDA pilot project that will incentivize farmers in a dedicated region, through payments, to adopt agricultural practices aimed at improving soil health and sequestering organic soil carbon. The project will also set a protocol for measuring soil carbon levels and the gains made by participating farmers to determine the viability of these practices for broader application on farms across the country.
“This initiative — and to successfully include soil health and carbon provisions in the Senate farm bill — was a direct result of an unprecedented collaboration between farmers, farmer organizations, agtech leaders and the environmental community,” said Nicole Lederer, cofounder and chair of Environment Entrepreneurs (E2). E2, a non-profit advocacy group of business leaders, was part of a coalition including National Resources Defense Council, the American Coalition for Ethanol, and the National Corn Growers Association.
“This is an apolitical, completely non-partisan group that’s focused on a thriving farm community, the agtech sector, and the environment,” she told AgFunderNews.
The soil health provision includes two other sections that could incentivize better soil management and soil carbon sequestration through payments. It amends the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to add organic carbon planning to the definition of ‘conservation activities’ and adds increasing soil organic carbon levels to the definition of ‘resource-conserving crop rotation’. It also amends the Environmental Quality Incentivization Program (EQUIP) to add soil organic planning to the definition of ‘conservation activities’.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden sponsored the soil health provision.
“It’s all too rare that an idea comes along that brings people of all political stripes enthusiastically together. I’m proud to have worked with farmers and conservationists on this provision to encourage low-carbon farming practices that will lead to better crops, healthier soil and a better future,” said Wyden in a statement. “My soil health provision in the Senate Farm Bill is a win-win for farmers and the environment.”
The leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee — Senators Roberts and Stabenow — also deserve credit for their work on the provision, said Lederer.
The provision is good news for startups working on soil health-promoting technologies and could encourage greater adoption by farmers, argued Paul Zorner, CEO of Locus Agricultural Solutions (Locus AG), a microbial products startup.
“This is an extremely strong market signal for a company like ours and others that have products aimed at improving soil health,” he told AgFunderNews. “Hopefully it will drive further innovation and investment in ag biotech.”
“Growers have to manage a variety of different challenges to crop productivity, and incorporating new ways to understand and optimize microbial soil health can often get pushed down the priority list,” Zorner added. “The Farm Bill provision helps solidify the importance of focusing on complete soil health, and puts in place government programs that can assist in describing best methods and also incentivize growers to help them more rapidly adopt these new innovative practices.”
Locus sells a beneficial fungus and bacteria product called Rhizolizer that improves the plant microbiome — the environment of organisms and critters that live in and around a plant’s root zone. This results in higher yielding and higher quality crops, according to Zorner.
Rhizolizer has resulted in larger, sweet strawberries and citrus fruit, as well as increasing the size of potatoes, he said. It is also helping citrus growers to regenerate their trees in the wake of the citrus greening epidemic that devastated Florida’s citrus industry.
“We’re not curing [citrus greening], but the trees are responding and we’re seeing an 80% increase in the growth of fodder roots, as well as a 30% increase in the foliar canopy density,” said Zorner.
Don Marvin, President and CEO of biological ag inputs startupConcentric (previously Inocucor) was also pleased to see an emphasis on soil health in the Senate Farm Bill.
“Efforts to restore soils to serve their original purpose of efficiently delivering nutrients to plants will improve yields, retain water for drought resistance, store carbon to reduce the effects of climate change, purify groundwater, and help crops naturally resist disease. Agriculture must continue to shift the center of attention to innovations that nurture and enhance the soil and the environment,” he told AgFunderNews.
Ag Biotech Startups are well funded — they raised nearly $700 million in 2017, according to AgFunder data. But adoption and route to market are big challenges, particularly as earlier iterations of biological inputs had questionable results for farmers. This has pushed some ag biotech startups to develop innovative distribution models.
“Microbial products have been around for 40 to 50 years but at best they’ve been inconsistent, at worst they’ve been classed as “snake oil” by farmers due to their ineffectiveness,” said Zorner. To ensure the potency of Rhizolizer, Locus has created its own cold chain to distribute the product to farmers’ doors within a few weeks of manufacture. This compares to typical distribution channels that can take several months while the microbes lose their potency. Locus is also developing a soil testing kit to help farmers measure the microbial content of their soils and is considering how to share this data among its customers to showcase the performance of Rhizolizer.
Indigo Ag, a biotech startup selling seeds coated in microbes, is also working on collecting data around the efficacy of its product to promote adoption. It also has an innovative business model by buying back the crops grown with its seed at a premium in an effort to build market share.
“Healthy soil is the lifeblood of profitable farms and a biodiverse ecosystem,” commented to Geoffrey von Maltzahn, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Indigo about the Senate Farm Bill. “At Indigo, we believe that with the right tools farmers can be both more profitable and more sustainable. We’re happy to see the provision promoting soil health in this year’s Farm Bill and look forward to following the USDA’s pilot project. We’re confident this will shed further light on the economic and environmental benefits that carbon farming can deliver.”
The House Farm Bill also passed this week. It does not have specific provisions for soil health, but “prioritizes working-lands conservation by retaining and folding the best features of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) into the nation’s flagship incentive-based program for voluntary conservation—the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This supports and enables a significant investment in emerging conservation practices like the use of cover crops,” according to the house bill website.