I spent part of this week taking in some excellent presentations at the Soil Health Innovations Conference, which was hosted online by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, based in Butte, Mont.

One panel of speakers, including growers Adam Chappell, Russ Lester, Allison Guidroz and NCAT livestock specialist Dave Scott, shared some of their challenges and progress with improving soil health on their operations.

Lester, co-owner of Winters, Calif.-based Dixon Ridge Farms, is a fourth generation California farmer whose operation grows, buys and processes California organic walnuts.

He started farming organically in 1989 and has helped shape many organic farming concepts and practices for orchards. This decision was owed to his father coming down with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, along with reading about a study that he says linked herbicides and lymphoma.

“Not many farmers were going organic at that time, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the journey was frustrating and challenging at times,” he says, noting that even today only about 1% of walnut production in the U.S. (mostly in California) is raised organically.

“With the help of forward-thinking researchers, entomologists and organizations we developed a whole-systems approach to our sustainable practices that we continue to improve upon today.”

Lester’s farm keeps the soil fertile with an annual no-till cover crop and composted manure. The cover crop and planted hedgerows attract beneficial insects and wildlife.

No-till has reduced soil erosion and runoff, maintained earthworm habitat, retained soil moisture and reduced carbon emission, he says.

Lester shared some interesting statistics from previous research as well about the state of our country’s soils: 

  • Ag soils have lost 50-70% of their normal soil organic matter (SOM);
  • Cover crops, compost and biomass have been shown to increase SOM and soil carbon by more than 32%
  • Tillage is shown to reduce SOM and soil carbon by 27%

Lester says his operation only tills to plant cover crops, and he’s using about 3.5 tons per acre of yard waste as compost, which is broadcast April-June.

“Every year, we’re learning more and improving on the whole-systems approach we started over 30 years ago. After all, sustainability and farming certainly are not stagnant,” Lester says.

This shows that sustainable farming systems are not only being adopted in row crops, but with high-value crops in California as well — which is great for the future of agriculture.