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Rachel Myslivy

Heartland Voices: Candy Thomas, NRCS State Agronomist

7 years ago | Aug 12, 2014
By: Rachel Myslivy, Program Director

  Candy Thomas is the State Agronomist for Kansas Natural Resources Conservation Service. With over 20 years of experience with NRCS, Candy started in Missouri as a soil conservationist and district conservationist and then trained new agency employees at the national level for the last three years while assigned to Ft. Worth, Texas. In October 2013, Candy took the position of State Agronomist in Kansas. Throughout her career she has believed that financially impacting producers’ bottom line by improving their farming operation environmentally is essential. Candy also understands that if she cannot make a landowner buy into a plan economically then they will not get on board. Her thought is that very rarely can producers afford to do things because it is the "right thing for them to do” unless it is profitable. Candy’s husband and two children have a farm in south central Iowa it is a beef/pastured poultry operation.

What are you excited about regarding energy and the environment?

Soil health. Foremost in our agency is our soil health push. It’s a big campaign that NRCS is investing in quite heavily to try to improve the resilience of our soils. People talk about sustainability. But sustainability means different things for different people. Forward thinking producers don’t like the term "sustainability”. They like resiliency better. Sustainability means using the same system to maintain a certain level. They don’t want to maintain, they want to move beyond to bring back the soil to what it was like before we started its destruction over 100 years ago.

Soil health impacts energy in a huge regard. If you use no-till with a diversified crop rotation instead of corn/bean or wheat fallow and integrate cover crops you maintain a living root in the ground as many days as possible. Those living roots are pulling up the pollutants that cause water quality issues. There are covers that reduce nitrates, or provide nitrogen which reduces inputs, as well. Legumes can help offset the cost of nitrogen application.

Mycorrhizal fungi = reduced inputs. We are just starting to get a grasp the microbiology occurring beneath the soil. What we know about mycorrhizal fungi - it’s like we are starting to grasp one string in a very big rope! The interactions beneath the soil also help reduce the need for inputs over time but it takes time to get soil to the point where you can start seeing this.

For example, our phosphorous supply will peak in 2030. After 2030 it will start to decline, we need to figure out how to deal with that. Currently, only 15-25% of phosphorous applied is used while the other 80% is running off, resulting in eutrophicationin lakes and sediment in ponds and streams. There is a TED talk by Mohamed Hijri that offers a simple solution to the coming phosphorous crisis. You can reduce P inputs by 25% and see an increase in utilization from 15% to 80% just by incorporating mycorrhizal fungi into the system. If we can figure out the association that’s going on between mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria that helps provide nutrients to plants and get a better grasp on how it works to reduce phosphorous inputs then we will be getting someplace. People will see reduced inputs and increased profit.

We already know that no-till is the big key. The minute you destruct the system with tillage, you have to rebuild the whole structure. How can we use biology to try to reduce inputs and make environment much cleaner? It will take time and for folks out west – water – for the system to drive itself. If we are not getting rain, it will take longer to see benefits. For folks in the east, like Gail Fuller, he’s seen improvements in his system already. It is good to have role models for people to see that this type of system could work and we can reduce our inputs.

Myco-remediation.  Another thing I’m excited about is using mushrooms to heal the soil. There is another TED talk by Paul Stamets called "Six ways mushrooms can change the world.” They are using mushrooms to reestablish old growth forests out in Oregon. He’s created a cardboard inoculated with seeds. You grow the mushrooms and they clean the polluted soil. I wonder if there are ways we could use that in the areas of Kansas where the soil has been desertified. I think that’s a pretty cool idea.

What are you concerned about regarding energy and the environment?

Energy Audits held up by shortage of Technical Service Providers. On Farm energy audits have the advantage of going through a plan but there are not a lot of people out there that can write these plans to do the audits. That’s what a lot of the webinar is about – to train NRCS staff and others to do on farm energy audits. There are 16 major activities that need to be evaluated. Energy is a new focus for NRCS within the last 5-10 years; we've always focused on soil and water. Now, energy is a really big deal for us. NRCS has money for energy audits but don’t have enough technical service providers to conduct the audits. We can provide money to hire Technical Service Providers but we need people in Kansas to do energy audits in agriculture.

 NRCS prioritizes soil, water, plants, animals, air and energy.  The Newly Revised NRCS Agricultural Energy Management Plan includes a Conservation Activity Plan (CAP) designed to evaluate on-farm energy use.  A webinar is scheduled for Aug 28, 2014 2:00 pm US/Eastern that will inform participants about a revised approach to tillage and irrigation analysis as well as lighting, refrigeration, and other energy-using systems used to run agricultural enterprises throughout the United States.

High cost of renewable energy. I also think it would be really interesting if we could get more of the green opportunities available at a cheaper rate. Solar PV systems are pretty high. If it costs $15,000 to get electricity, it is about $5-10 K for solar in the same area. That is still a pretty good expense. You could have radiant heat in the floors and hot water produced on roof with the whole shop powered by solar if it was more affordable. I see some people with small wind turbines but they end up shutting them off. Why produce excess if you don’t need it or aren't getting paid for it?

Urban vs. Ag. I’m concerned about the disconnect between urban and ag. Some people look at factory farms and paint this negative picture and many think the whole ag community is that way. It’s scary to see that. The ag community needs to be more transparent or we need more advocates within the ag community. We don’t all work this way, quite a few of us are working to make things better for our neighbors and for those who will inherit. As long as those advocates against production ag are out there, their voice will be heard over the voices of ag. In the US , just 2% of the population are ag producers so they are a very small percentage of the overall total population that is poorly represented. There are smaller groups – like the Gail Fuller’s - that need to be highlighted and put out there so people are more aware that there are people trying to do good things. The big deal is "know your farmer, know your food.” The folks in town they really take on to that. Instead of focusing on the negativity of one production system, there are a lot of people doing good things. I think we need somebody to be the voice of these smaller producers. Even though it can be portrayed by some in broad brush strokes as negative and some urban people think it’s all that way when it is not.

That’s one of the things we are hoping to do with Water + Energy Progress – celebrating positive innovations that save water and energy on Kansas farms and ranches!

Air quality and wind erosion. If you want to see what’s going to happen to the Midwest, look and see what’s going on in California.  It will be here in 15 years. They’re looking at air quality big time. We’re lucky here that it hasn’t happened but look at the wind erosion that is happening. I don’t think we will be to the point of the dustbowl because farmers in that part of the country are not farming like they used to with conventional tillage. Many are no-till and because of the past are more conscious of what happened in the 30’s and will try to prevent it from happening.

Think big: what’s on the horizon?

Biomass. One thing I think that we need to look at is using biomass, wood, or miscanthus or some other type of fuel for energy as opposed to using grain stover for biofuel. People in Iowa are harvesting residue off farm and selling it to produce fuel. That to me is a really big waste of our natural resources and a detriment to soil health. We need to keep residue on ground to alleviate wind erosion. There are places in Kansas where they struggle to get enough residue and others are just selling it. There needs to be more research into how people can convert some of their farming towards biofuels instead of using what they have (like wheat straw). We need that residue and cover crops to feed the soil.

Reducing P with healthy soil. If we can decrease phosphorous by utilizing critters in the soil - Holy cow! - That would be a mindblowing breakthrough. The price of those inputs are not going down. The price of corn and beans and wheat dropped over the past six months and they are predicting that prices will continue to drop. Well, if the land value is still high but the value of the product is low and the inputs are still high, we can’t make that pan out. There will be people in trouble. If we can reduce inputs by figuring out how to harvest what is in the soil, I think that will be a boon to agriculture. Someone in research needs to look at that, not just people playing around and figuring it out. We need to look at these people who have been working on this and try to replicate it, identify inputs, and start reducing. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence but not a lot of research. If we had more research, more would adopt these best practices.

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