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In American farm country, there's a grass-roots movement taking hold - a movement for healthier soil that's chock-full of plant, roots, microbes and earthworms. It might even lead to a new label on the food you see in your grocery store, alongside labels like organic and fair trade. NPR's Dan Charles has our report.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: On three different fields in Iowa and Nebraska recently, three different farmers dug up some dirt and held it like hidden treasure.
DEB GANGWISH: You can see how beautiful. It's healthy - that soil - I mean, it's just - I'm not a soil scientist, but I love soil.
BRYCE IRLBECK: You can pick it up, and it smells like dirt. And you can go on a lot of farms in Iowa, and the dirt doesn't smell like dirt anymore.
DEL FICKE: Look at this - and the smell. It smells beautiful. It's alive.
CHARLES: These three farmers - Deb Gangwish, Bryce Irlbeck, Del Ficke - are all part of a soil health movement. Some people call it regenerative farming - regenerating the soil. But it means different things to each of them. For Del Ficke - the last voice you heard calling his soil alive - it's a kind of spiritual mission.
FICKE: Right over - kind of catty-corner from that tree, up over that ridge, is the spot where I got my calling.
CHARLES: He felt called to protect the soil.
FICKE: It should be on the list of endangered species. Soil is endangered.
CHARLES: And protecting it means, first of all, no more tilling the ground - breaking it up with plows and discs.
FICKE: Tillage is the most destructive thing in agriculture.
CHARLES: No-till farming is actually pretty common these days. But Ficke goes way beyond that. After he harvests his corn or soybeans, he plants something else on those fields right away, like grasses and peas, to keep roots growing in the soil. And then on some of that land, he keeps these so-called cover crops growing right on through the next summer instead of regular crops like corn. His cattle graze on the grass the way the bison used to. The roots return carbon to the soil - make it darker, more fertile, full of microbes and fungi. Much of this is actually just old-style farming from decades ago. But two things about it are new. First of all, more and more farmers are doing it.
FICKE: When I started doing this stuff - really doing this stuff five years ago, you had to go a state away to find people. Those people are all over now. You can find somebody like that every few miles.
CHARLES: All over the Midwest - in Manning, Iowa, for instance, there's Bryce Irlbeck.
IRLBECK: We can see - when we put that green carbon back in the soil, we can see the effects of reduced fertilizer and reduced erosion.
CHARLES: He is trying to rebuild a soil for simple, practical reasons because healthy soil is a sponge for water. It will come through droughts and floods much better. It's also more fertile, so you won't need to spend as much money on fertilizer.
IRLBECK: I think there's a movement. And I believe the farmers want to be a part of that movement. It's just figuring out how to do it and economically stay viable.
CHARLES: That's the catch because planting these extra soil-building crops costs money upfront, he says. And it takes years to see the benefits. So only 5 or 10 percent of farmers in Iowa are really doing it. But here's the second thing that's new. Some of the biggest names in American agriculture have taken up the soil health cause - like Monsanto, the seed and chemical company, food giants, like General Mills and Walmart, also national environmental organizations. They're all talking about healthy soil as a way that farmers can help the environment. Putting carbon back in the soil can slow down global warming, for instance. And they're all backing a new organization - a soil health partnership that signed up 100 participating farmers, including Deb Gangwish, that farmer you heard digging up some soil on her farm in Nebraska.
GANGWISH: We want to always strive to be better. And I want consumers - or folks who are removed from agriculture - to understand what we are doing and how much we care.
CHARLES: This business-backed soil health partnership is what you might call soil health-lite. It's looking at modest steps, like no-till farming or growing a cover crop over winter in between the regular plantings of corn and soybeans. Del Ficke, the soil health prophet, has mixed emotions about it.
FICKE: Are they feeling it in their heart? Is it a marketing deal? What is it?
CHARLES: There may be a marketing angle, in fact. Some food companies have been talking about a new label that could go on food from farms that rebuilds soil the way Ficke does. It would be yet another label up there beside organic, non-gmo, fair trade. This one might be certified regenerative. Dan Charles, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "FOOD")
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