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“Our intent with Farmers for Soil Health was to build a platform that removed all the barriers of complexity and difficulty in letting farmers enroll and verify that they did in fact enroll and establish cover crops”

— Ben West, Executive Director, Farmers for Soil Health

In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Montag Manufacturing, listen to a conversation with Ben West, executive director of Farmers for Soil Health, and Ryan Heiniger, a 4th generation farmer and executive director of Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), as they chat about all the details of the Farmers for Soil Health program and what cover croppers need to know about it.

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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

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Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Montag Manufacturing. I'm Mackane Vogel, Associate Editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, I sat down with Ben West, executive director of Farmers For Soil Health, and Ryan Heiniger, a fourth generation farmer and executive director of Conservation Technology Information Center, otherwise known as CTIC, to chat about all the details of the Farmers For Soil Health Program and what Cover Croppers need to know about.

All right, so I'm here joined today by Ben West and Ryan Heiniger. Guys, if you want to just start out and introduce yourselves to our listeners, just give kind of your title and just a little bit about yourselves just to give our listeners a little bit of background information. That'd be great.

Ryan Heiniger:

Glad to be on the podcast. My name's Ryan Heiniger. I serve as the executive director for the Conservation Technology Information Center. We're a forty-two-year-old non-profit member-based company that was doing conservation agriculture way before it was in vogue, thanks to some real thoughtful pioneers including Mr. Frank Lester as one of our founding members. I actually work remotely from our family farm in southeast Iowa. We're a corn and soybean operation, so I wear a professional sustainability hat along with being a fourth generation farmer.

Ben West:

And I'm Ben West, I'm the executive director of Farmers For Soil Health. I'm a wildlife biologist by background. I spent most of my career in higher education, kind of working in the nexus of conservation and agriculture and had an opportunity about a year ago to make a career change. Started a consulting practice, helping organizations develop strategy and implement strategy, raise money and communicate better. And one of the first opportunities I had was to work with Farmers For Soil Health. So I get to work with folks like Ryan and CTIC every day just to help coordinate the work of all of the partners and Farmers For Soil Health. And there are a bunch both at the national level and the state level. So my job is really to support folks like Ryan and his team at CTIC.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, thanks guys. And in a few minutes we're definitely going to get a little deeper into the Farmers For Soil Health Program. But before we do, I always like starting off these podcasts with the same question of describe your, what I call Ag origin story. So what are some of your earliest memories of agriculture and what are some of those early memories for you?

Ben West:

Yeah, I'll take this one first. I grew up in a little community in middle Tennessee and about, I don't know, half a mile from where I grew up my whole life, the house I grew up in, was the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. It was a fish and wildlife service refuge, but they used agriculture to manage wildlife habitat. And living in a small rural community, there was agriculture everywhere. But that place in particular, that's where my kind of interest in agriculture and conservation originated. I spent a lot of time there as a kid and I was just fascinated with the fact that conservation and agriculture live side by side. And the land management decisions they made there were both good for wildlife and good for farmers. And that's kind of what I've spent my career on.

Ryan Heiniger:

For me, I'd maybe give two examples. For me personally, of course, growing up on the farm I have a lot of great memories, helping my dad, helping my grandfather, both traditionally walking beans, something that you don't see much of today. Also, one of my first jobs was actually detassling, which as a 13, 14-year-old, that was real money. That was a great experience. Still talk about that with my high school friends today.

But then I'd fast-forward as I pursued my career off the farm, actually lived out of state for about 15 years. And it was, I would say thanks to my son who just I think was born with farming in his DNA and it somewhat reinvigorated my interest. Even though professionally I've worked in this space but to actually come back to my roots to the farm, we were living in Bismarck, North Dakota, 800 miles from the farm. And so in the fall or even during the summer, we'd randomly approach farmers out combining or planting and ask them to ride along. And of course a little boy, a little girl, hard to say no to. And so we would just get our tractor fix that way. But it really re-sparked my interest to come home and make sure that not only did the fourth generation continue, but that there was a runway for the fifth generation and beyond as well.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, great. Those are awesome, awesome examples. Always cool to hear. Everyone always has a little bit of a different story of how they got into the world of agriculture, so it's always cool to hear that.

So why don't we dive a little bit into the Farmers For Soil Health Program now, if either of you want to just give us a little bit of a brief overview and some of the overall goals of the program. Let's hear about that.

Ben West:

So Farmers For Soil Health originated two, three years ago when three of the most significant national commodity organizations started talking about how they might work together more in sustainability. And those were the United Soybean Board, the National Corn Growers Association, and the National Pork Board. Those three commodity organizations individually were already doing a lot of sustainability work and were doing some work together. But they said, "We could really accelerate the impact of our work if we got even more aggressive about partnering and working together."

So they signed an agreement that basically said they were going to aggressively work on sustainability issues together. Obviously corn and soy dominates US row crop acreage, and pigs eat a lot of those commodities. So those three together really are a really significant player in American agriculture and have a lot of opportunity to advance sustainability. The first project that originated from that collaboration was Farmers For Soil Health, a collaboration to try and help farmers adopt and refine the use of regenerative agricultural practices.

We're beginning with cover crops, but we expect that that will grow into other practices in the future. The first real initiative that Farmers For Soil Health is pursuing is a program that was funded by one of the USDA Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities grant program. Those three commodity organizations, along with a bunch of national partners competed for one of those grants, was awarded one of the two largest grants awarded. 95 million to advance cover crops in 20 states.

The foundation of what Farmers For Soil Health is going to be doing through this grant can be represented in three buckets of work. The first is technical assistance, helping farmers understand both the agronomic and the economic aspects of Cover Crops through on the ground technical assistance providers like CTIC and their counterparts in our 20 states. So we're rolling this program out in 20 states, the Midwest, Upper South, and kind of Mid-Atlantic region.

So technical assistance is one area. The other area is financial assistance. We'll be spending most of the money in the program providing farmers cost share to offset the financial risk of trying this new practice cover crops.

And then finally the third is a sustainability marketplace where farmers who are growing commodities with sustainable practices can list those commodities on an open, transparent platform. And end users, consumer packaged goods companies, oil fuel companies, feed companies looking to acquire sustainably produced commodities can be connected directly to farmers in a very transparent and open way. We know that both ends of that supply chain, farmers and end users, are really hungry for this direct transparent access. Farmers want to know who they're selling their sustainability credentials to, and end users want to know where those are coming from, what farms they're coming from.

But really one of the secrets to Farmers For Soil Health is our network of on the ground technical assistance providers. We think that's one of our secret weapons. By leveraging the capabilities and reputation of organizations that like CTIC already has, we think we can reach out and connect with farmers in really significant ways.

Ryan Heiniger:

Great, great overview of the national level. And so where does CTIC fit into this equation? So I joined the organization in November of 2022, and right away was looking for both new programs. And I'm a little bit biased towards favoring partnerships that have a farmer facing component to it because that's of course where change ultimately happens. One kitchen table conversation at a time, so to speak. And have really built my career helping build teams to provide that increased technical assistance so that farmers do have additional resources to lean on. And so, put out a call in a number of the states. Ben mentioned, Farmers For Soil Health operates at 20 states. Put out some feelers. And the first opportunity came from a partnership with Minnesota Soybean Growers. That led to the soybean associations in both Wisconsin and South Dakota as well, forming kind of a critical mass.

And so we submitted a proposal, [inaudible 00:10:41] hire additional technical capacity in the form of full-time soil health specialists. I'm very grateful to have the talented team members that we have, Julia, Dan, and Katie in South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin respectively. And so they wake up every single day helping network with farmers, commodity groups at the state level, other key organizations that are all dedicated towards this common objective of getting information out there in the hands of farmers, helping them with the enrollment process beginning step one all the way through the final steps. Of course, not only getting seed in the ground, but having it be integrated into their cash crop appropriately.

And one of the new items that we're just working on in kind of our second year being involved with the program to kind of double down on this learning and ultimately have farmers be positioned for success is what we're calling a Cover Crop Coaching Program. Whereby thanks to generous funding from General Mills, we're actually hiring nine experienced Cover Crop farmer users in these three states to augment the work that Katie, Dan, and Julia are doing.

Of course, these states are fairly large and so this will give us additional geographic coverage as well as that real pragmatic kind of hands-on hand, "What do I need to be thinking about for my planter set up? What should I adjust in my fertility or chemistry programs?"

And so farmers helping teach other farmers is just one other way that we're committed to ultimately having this program be successful. And my personal challenge to the team and metric of success is what do the farmers do in year four, when the program either continues or perhaps isn't available? Are the farmers positioned for success because they've seen the benefits start to accrue? They've seen some of those yield increases, seen the soil change, and ultimately choose to continue it with or without any kind of additional financial incentives.

Mackane Vogel:

We will come back to the discussion in a moment, but first I'd like to thank our sponsor, Montag Manufacturing for supporting today's podcast. Montag Precision Metering Equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing Cover Crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer. Visit or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

And now let's get back to the discussion with Ben West and Ryan Heiniger.

You talked a little bit about the financial assistant aspect of it, and obviously that's really important to kind of help offset some of the costs of implementing new programs like Cover Crops on your farm. I'm curious if there's a way that this program helps farmers who maybe have already been using cover crops or no-till or other sustainable practices like that for a couple of years. Can you speak to that element at all?

Ben West:

Farmers who have adopted cover crops in the past are eligible to join the program. The immediate financial incentive they get is much lower. But if they enroll, they'll get $2 an acre basically to cover their time to enroll. But then the big deal is they then will be allowed to be a seller on the sustainability marketplace and be connected to end users looking to pay farmers a premium for more sustainably produced commodities.

Right now, when the marketplace launches this year, it'll only cover cover crops, but we built it with the intent to have the flexibility long-term to incorporate additional practices. Because we know in the real world it's not just as simple as planting cover crops, so be part of more complex and nuanced farming systems that include lots of different practices that provide sustainability benefits. And we want farmers to be able to benefit from those as well as the end users wanting commodities grown those ways.

Ryan Heiniger:

The only other thing I might add to that too is, and this is kind of fresh on the heels of being at a major winter ag show in Minnesota and talking to several dozen producers all across the spectrum from those who have yet to adopt, to those that have done the kind of R&D on the back 40 so to speak, and they're ready to scale.

And I think that's another real strong suit for Farmers For Soil Health, for those farmers that have spent a few years, whether it's with local cost share or just self-funded practices, and now they're convinced that this does help their operation both from an environmental standpoint, from a profitability standpoint, and they're ready to scale those acres. And so Farmers For Soil Health because of its efficiency, the ease at which people can enroll and the speed at which they can enroll, offers that chance to go from that home 40 acres or home quarter section to cover more of their operation.

And of course that's a decision that they and they alone are responsible for. And so we just again, are excited about the chance to help them. But I think that's one of the other selling points for this program to your question on its role in the larger context of farmers that are doing a variety of practices to improve their sustainability.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, Ryan, I'm going to stick with you for a second here. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about that Cover Crop Coaches aspect of it and how does that part work in terms of finding, do these farmers apply to get that role or do you guys seek out people to be in those roles? How does that part of it work?

Ryan Heiniger:

Great question. So this is brand new for CTIC, but of course is deeply rooted in lots of good social science in terms of how farmers want to learn from one another. I would point out the work that the state of Wisconsin has done to create these producer-led watershed groups as a great blueprint or a roadmap for how successful this approach can be. And so once we received the funding, the grant from General Mills put out a call for applications asking farmers to submit basically a letter of interest. I think that was open for about six or seven weeks last fall. Actually just closed New Year's Eve day 2023. And so we're really pleased with the diversity of applications we received and we've spent the first couple weeks of the new year having conversations with those farmers to just kind of better understand their goals, answer questions that they have.

And so we're right now, this third week of January making selections for those coaches. Because we did have more interest than what we've got currently to be able to fund. And hoping to grow this program not only in our three states, but I think there's honestly a national opportunity here as well. As we have unprecedented levels of financial assistance, but perhaps a shorter supply of folks with that technical knowledge of what works, what doesn't. So ultimately farmers are more successful.

So the workflow really is once a farmer signs up into Farmers For Soil Health, whether it's through direct consulting that we're doing on the ground, whether it's through some of the national promotions that the commodity organizations are doing or whatever the case may be. And then once they're in the program, we're going to have kind of a baton handoff temporarily from our full-time soil health specialists to these Cover Crop Coaches, which will then visit the farm operations of the new farmers that have enrolled and just literally kick the tires, getting us a sense of the equipment set up again to share that real practical, pragmatic farmer experience of what they need to be thinking about going into their first year. For example, which is just a hundred days or less away of being able to plant their cash crop corn soybeans in this region. And so what do they need to be thinking about? So we're positioning them for success.

And then they'll have a variety of both in-person touch points as well as just virtual discussions throughout the course of the summer, including the coach actually hosting a field day so other farmers can then come and learn from the coach how they've been successful, what are they seeing for benefits from their use of Cover Crops for whether it's two years or a decade. And just another point along those lines, one of the other legacy projects that CTIC has been involved with along with SARE, along with the University of Missouri and the American Seed Trade Association is a national cover crop survey. And in our most recent one that we published last year, 40% of the farmers using cover crops had 10 years of experience. So they've got a bachelor's, they've got a masters, they've got a PhD in using cover crops. What a great army of leaders and experts to be able to call on to help other farmers with less experience.

Mackane Vogel:

Fantastic. Yeah. And then Ben, I think I'll go to you for this one. Can you speak a little bit more to kind of the timing? I know you mentioned the sustainability marketplace aspect of it, planning to launch that later this year. What does the big picture look like timing wise for if you're a grower and you're listening right now and this sounds really awesome and interesting, when can farmers expect to dive head first into this?

Ben West:

So we launched our program last fall. So beginning of September last year, farmers could enroll in the program. But really our first year was a very soft launch. We've had several dozen farmers and several thousand acres enrolled, but our long-term goal is about 1.3 million acres. So we've got a long way to get there. But we expect this year to be a really significant enrollment year. Enrollment is open right now. If farmers planted cover crops last year or during the current cover crop season, they can still enroll those cover crops right now or they can enroll for the following cover crop season, the 2024/25 Cover Crop season.

But enrollment is open right now. Enrollment will be open for at least a couple of years. So farmers that are interested but they're not quite ready to enroll yet, they can just connect with us, engage with our state, with our technical assistance providers like CTIC to start thinking about it. If they want to enroll this year, that'd be great. If they want to think about it a little bit more and get their minds wrapped around it, enrollment will be open next year as well.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, and another thing I'd like to talk about, just a couple more questions for you guys here. We interview lots of different farmers for the podcast too, and one of the things I've heard a lot about some of these past incentive programs is that farmers feel frustrated with the ease of use of some of this technology and going through these portals. And a common complaint I'm always hearing from farmers is just that time is so precious that they barely have time to log on and read through all this stuff and search out these programs. So can either of you kind of comment on the ease that farmers might find using these tools and how complex or not complex this might be for them?

Ben West:

That's a great question. The reality is there are a lot of cover crop programs out there already, but we have low adoption of cover crops. I mean only depending on the data. You look at six to 10% of row crop farmers use cover crops every year. So a really low adoption rate. We've got to ask why, because there are cover crop programs out there and there have been like NRCS's Equip program. Well, as we were developing Farmers For Soil Health and talking to farmers, we realized that money was an important decision for many of them, but it wasn't the only decision, the only thing factoring into their decision.

As you said, a lot of the programs that exist now are very complicated. So our intent with Farmers For Soil Health was to build a system, a platform that removed all of the barriers of complexity and difficulty in letting farmers enroll and verify that they did in fact enroll and establish cover crops.

It'll take farmers way less than an hour to enroll in Farmers For Soil Health. Depending on how many fields they're enrolling, they could enroll in 10 minutes or less potentially. All of the verification is done remotely via satellite. So literally it can be as easy for a farmer to participate as spending a few minutes enrolling, establishing cover crops, and then getting a check the next spring after we verify through remote sensing through satellites that they establish a cover crop. We pay a little less than some of the other programs, but we're compensating for that by making a very, very easy system to manage and navigate.

Ryan Heiniger:

That's very well said. And the only other thing I would add to that is just to echo it or kind of validate it from my perspective, both again as a farmer as well as part of the partnership and having been involved with a lot of other programs as well, that kudos to the Farmers For Soil Health Leadership Team for having that vision of efficiency.

Again, just pivoting back to being at the major farm show last week in Mankato, Minnesota, that was definitely something that was very much of interest once we started to unpack some of the details that they could sit down and literally in a matter of minutes, not just apply, but essentially apply and once they self-certify, be accepted in the program, be up and running. And to put an exclamation point on it, as been alluded to, if a farmer had planted cover crops in 2023 and did not have other federal funds involved with those particular acres, they're still eligible to enroll for that first year through the end of February 2024, February 28, I think is the deadline.

What a great example of flexibility and created by farmers for farmers type of a thought process here. I personally have never found a program that you can apply retroactively in this fashion. So again, hats off to the leaders for having that mindset and then driving it through the first step all the way through when the paycheck gets sent out.

Mackane Vogel:

Great. Thanks guys. So Ben, I think this might be another question for you. You alluded a little bit to some of the goals numbers wise, but I'd like to hear you talk a little bit more about just big picture. What do you guys think the scope of this thing could be a couple of years from now? What's the goals for that?

Ben West:

Yeah, really good question, and I think it's important. We get asked this question a lot. "What is Farmers For Soil Health?" And it's a little bit of a nuanced answer because it's at least two things. Farmers For Soil Health is a collaboration between the United Soybean Board, the National Corn Growers Association and the National Pork Board to advance regenerative farming practices, long-term. That may lead to many different initiatives in the future. The most immediate initiative is like we talked about is this USDA Climate Smart Commodities grant. That grant is focused on cover crops and that grant is designed to help fulfill a larger goal of Farmers For Soil Health to drive adoption of cover crops on at least 30 million acres of row crop land by 2030.

We think we'll get there pretty easily. We're not the only folks doing work in cover crops and other sustainable farming practices, but we think we can be one of the major influencers in rapidly increasing the adoption of this particular practice right now, cover crops.

Mackane Vogel:

All right, and then maybe just a final question here for both of you. We'll end on kind of a nice positive note, what's one or two things each of you have really gained from this already? I guess to reword it maybe, what's been the most rewarding part for each of you working on this program?

Ben West:

I got to meet Ryan Heiniger.

Ryan Heiniger:

I got to meet Ben West.

Ben West:

Now I'll say this, Ryan, then you can tag in. I think it's been really rewarding and a lot of fun to work on this on a project that has such scale. I mean, you have three of the largest commodity organizations in the country leading the program, but we have partnerships and collaborations all the way down to the county level, providing boots on the ground support to farmers. As much as we collaborate in agriculture and conservation, that kind of thing doesn't happen that often. To have this all the way from the national level down to the most local level, have a dozen organizations involved in helping farmers farm more sustainably and increase their financial bottom line and be prepared for the future. I mean, if you're interested in conservation and agriculture, it doesn't get much better than that.

Mackane Vogel:

Great, thanks guys. Before we end here, anything I've missed here, anything else that you guys would like to add to the conversation here that you think is important?

Ben West:

If farmers want to know more, of course they can reach out to their local state commodity organizations. But to find out who the point of contact is for your state, our website is a great resource,, all one word. And there'll be a list there of all the states involved in this first initiative and who you can get in touch with in those states to learn more.

Ryan Heiniger:

Well, that's well said. And for me, the partnerships, I would just emphasize that the relationships that come out of that, the fun that we have, both as a team here at CTIC as well as the larger number of organizations that are all dedicated to advancing this both near-term and longer-term vision to see change happen on the landscape. And again, the farmer leaders that have enrolled already, hats off to them for helping champion this and just really looking forward to those continued success stories coming in the months and years ahead.

And I guess I would just further emphasize again, the farmer to farmer component. I think we're positioned for success there, not only in the three states but across the region, because we are living in a wonderful time relative to the financial and technical resources that are available. So for farmer listeners, if you've been thinking about taking some different steps, whether it's recovery crops or the larger suite of conservation practices, there has never been a better time. So reach out to us here at CTIC. Visit your local soil and water district, talk to your state, your national commodity organization as well, and take those steps. And we're here to help.

Mackane Vogel:

That's it for this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast. Thanks to Ben West and Ryan Heiniger for that discussion. The full transcript of the episode, as well as our archive of previous podcast episodes are available at Many thanks to our sponsor, Montag Manufacturing, for helping to make this Cover Crop Podcast series possible. And from all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening and have a great day.