Agriculture in the United States faces significant challenges in the years ahead, perhaps none greater than the projection of approximately 9 billion people worldwide to feed by mid-century. Meeting this challenge will require an estimated increase in agricultural production of more than 70%. This increase that will need to occur over an ever-declining land base and one that will necessitate a paradigm shift in agricultural equivalent to that of the green revolution.
The good news is that the “brown revolution” of soil health holds great promise in helping U.S. farmers and ranchers meet this production goal. The bad news is that a number of obstacles stand in the way of the application of soil health best practices on the land. As with any significant operational change, the widespread adoption of soil health practices such as no-till, cover cropping, and improved pasture management has been slow. Equipment costs, established production methods, cultural challenges, and economic hurdles remain impediments to the advancement of the “brown revolution” in many locations. In addition, there are training and education barriers that need to be overcome.
Education on soil health is not limited to current agricultural professionals. In particular, soil health concepts and their benefits to production agriculture can be highlighted to future agriculturalists through programs such as 4-H. The use of 4-H as a vehicle to reach the next generation of producers has long been an important tool for agricultural scientists. 4-H also has its roots not only in the education of young farmers and ranchers, but as a means to impart agricultural knowledge to adults through familial relationships and community connections. University researchers in the late 19th century found that while adults didn’t always accept new ideas for agriculture, youth were more open to them and would subsequently experiment and share their experiences with older generations. Congress recognized the benefit of this approach with the passing of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 that created Cooperative Extension and nationalized 4-H clubs. Today, 4-H remains an important conduit for educating the agricultural leaders of tomorrow while imparting best practices to the producers of today.
Continuing in this legacy, USDA’s Southern Plains Climate Hub maintains broad regional outreach efforts to agricultural interests at multiple age levels, including through 4-H. The Hub is currently working with 4-H organizations in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to establish a series of awards that will recognize soil health achievements; the first of these programs will begin this summer. Club members who participate in soil health activities will be eligible for these awards and the 4-H scholarships and sponsorships that go with them, creating a valuable opportunity to instill an appreciation for one of the key conservation practices.