Monetizing Soil Health: An Innovative Strategy to Drive Greater Adoption of Cover Crops and No-Till

Oct 2018


Cover crops and no-till/reduced tillage are recognized as two practices with the greatest potential to reduce nitrate and phosphorus leaching to Iowa’s waterways. Yetdespite potential water quality benefits, adoption of these two practices is relatively low in Iowa. This could stem from the fact water quality benefits are public benefits, and the overall private benefits to farmers are not well understood or are uncertain. That’s because farmland value, measured by either sale prices or appraised value, does not reflect long-term productivity or soil improvements due to conservation practices.


The objective of this project is to incentivize the adoption and sustained use of no-till and cover crops through a market-based approach, by explicitly tying land appraisal and valuation to soil health indicators. The focus is on rural appraisers as potential change agents in providing price signals conducive to promoting no-till and cover crop adoption, and rewarding improvements in soil health to landowners who invest in these management practices.


Four farms with different management practices will be chosen. Soil samples from the four farms will be taken in October 2018, and analyzed for soil health. Eight rural appraisers will be recruited to participate in this study. In April 2019, they will appraise the four farms similar in most respects other than their record of conservation use. They also will complete on online survey to assess their baseline knowledge about soil health topics. Between November 2019 and March 2020, all appraisers will participate in four training sessions on using traditional soil fertility tests and how these relate to yields. Half of the appraisers also will be trained on the importance of soil health and linkages between soil health, yields, cover crops and no-till. New soil samples will be collected from the same farms in October 2019. In March 2020, the appraisers will reassess the values of the four farms they appraised a year earlier. In June 2020, they will retake the online survey to assess changes in their knowledge about soil health.

Project Updates

July 2020

Activity during this period included:

1) In early March, researchers requested 27 appraisal reports from nine appraisers on three farms, and asked that they be submitted to PI by June 1, 2020.

2) Requested and received permission from three farm owners to have their farms' information shared by the Farm Service Agency with the appraisers.

3) Received most appraisal reports by June 30, 2020, and started reviewing results of the reports.

4) Requested that those appraisers who submitted full reports be compensated according to signed contract.

December 2019

Accomplishments include developing a strong interdisciplinary team with economists, agronomists, soil health scientists and certified rural appraisers.

Outreach this period included 1 workshop for 6 participants at the Washington County Extension Office.

July 2019

Three farms were identified in Washington County using the research protocol: long-term no-till and no cover crops; long-term no-till and cover crops for the most recent five years; and long-term rotational tillage and no cover crop. Nine certified rural appraisers were randomly selected from a list of members of the Iowa Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. All agreed to participate in the two-year project and signed informed consent. Three requests for appraisals were sent to each appraiser with detailed information for each of the three farms. As of the end of June, researchers started to issue payments for the appraisals received so far. Some appraisal reports were still outstanding.  

A workshop on Soil Fertility and Soil Health is planned for October in Washington County.

December 2018

The research team met four times to discuss the soil health indicators to be covered in the workshops and to plan how to recruit farmers and farm appraisers. The team has identified three farmers willing to collaborate with the project and a list of appraisers to invite to the workshops in the spring.