Soil health is a major theme at Practical Farmers’ 2018 annual conference in Ames

Features short course on soils, Keith Berns on carbonomics, numerous soil sessions, crop advisor credits

For Release: December 7, 2017


Tamsyn Jones | Outreach & Publications Coordinator | Practical Farmers of Iowa | (515) 232-5661 | [email protected]

AMES, Iowa — Many farmers think of soil health in terms of specific stewardship practices – minimizing erosion, reducing external inputs, avoiding or minimizing tillage. But for farmer Keith Berns, healthy soil means no less than a thriving underground economy, one driven by its most vital commodity: carbon.

“Carbon is like the currency that drives the whole soil system,” says Keith, a former teacher who no-tills 2,500 acres of irrigated and dryland corn, soybeans, rye, triticale, peas, sunflowers and buckwheat near Bladen, Nebraska, and also co-owns Green Cover Seed, one of the major cover crop seed providers and educators in the U.S.

A few years ago, Keith developed the concept of “carbonomics,” a framework for thinking about soil health in terms of economic principles. In the soil system, carbon is like cash: plants use it to “buy” things from the soil biology. When carbon is limited – or has to be supplied externally to make up for deficits – he argues the system is at risk.

“If you think of carbon as cash, the only way you can build your soil organic matter is if you have excess carbon,” Keith says. “As a general rule, we’ve lost vast amounts of carbon because of tillage and other practices, not having cover crops. That’s in essence like running up a national debt. We were spending more than we were earning.

“In a strictly corn-soybean rotation, I compare it to someone living paycheck to paycheck. You’re getting by, making ends meet, but not building up the soil. That’s where cover crops come in. It’s like having a second job or getting a raise. The soil system has extra carbon ‘income’ so you can start growing your organic matter levels.”

Keith will present two sessions on soil health and cover crops at Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2018 annual conference, “Revival,” Jan. 19-20 at the Iowa State Center Scheman Building, on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. Register at, or contact Erica Andorf: [email protected] or (515) 232-5661. Those who pre-register by Jan. 11 will save $10 per day. Special rates are available for students and PFI members.

  • In “Carbonomics,” you’ll learn how plants, soil and biology are interconnected, and how thinking of the soil ecosystem in economic terms – such as supply and demand, currency and capital, energy and infrastructure, resources and defense – can empower you to improve your farm’s soil health.
  • In “Using the SmartMix Calculator to Develop Good Cover Crop Mixes,” Keith will give an in-depth look at the industry’s top cover crop calculator, and show how to use it to select the most appropriate species for your next cover crop mix.

Numerous other sessions will address soil health as it relates to raising cover crops, grazing cattle, vegetable production, tillage practices, cropping systems, soil testing – and more. Certified crop advisor credits are available for nine sessions (both of Keith’s; six others noted with an asterisk below), plus the soil health short course:

  • Doudlah Farms Organics: Why & How We Transitioned to Organic
  • An Economic Evaluation of Cover Crops in Midwestern Agriculture*
  • Organic No-Till: Soil Health & Regeneration vs. Short-Term Returns & Weeds (In partnership with Iowa Organic Association)
  • Learning From On-Farm Research: Field Crops*
  • The Shepherd’s Life: Soil, Sheep Dogs & Social Media
  • Using Tea Bags to Assess Soil: A Low-Cost Approach?*
  • Learning From On-Farm Research: Livestock*
  • Landowners: Are Weed-Free Fields the Best Your Farm Can Be?
  • Soil Health and Grazing – Can They Coexist?*
  • Soil Health: Continuous Testing, Continual Learning*
  • A Decade of Cover Crops Research

Soil Health Short Course: Those who want to gain an in-depth understanding of soil health and the role played by soil microbes and farm management practices can sign up for a pre-conference short course – “Soils: Cultivating a Deeper Understanding” –  that runs Thursday, Jan. 18, from 1-6:30 p.m., and Friday, Jan. 19, from 8-11:30 a.m., at the Scheman Building.

The course is divided into four sections that move from the basics into more advanced topics. Sections will explore the soils of Iowa; the role and influence of soil microbes; the impact of cropping systems and strategies for building soil health; and biological soil-quality testing methods. All participants will receive a workbook to follow the presentations and take notes. Certified crop advisors can earn 7.5 CEU credits by attending this course.

Keynote Address: The conference will also feature a keynote address by English farmer and bestselling author James Rebanks, who raises native Herdwick and Swaledale sheep and a British cattle breed called Blue Greys, in the mountains of northern England.

In his address – “An English Shepherd’s Vision to Revive Rural America” – James will share what it’s like to farm using old ways in the modern world, both the challenges and opportunities. He’ll discuss how traditional ways provide many of the answers we need for a farming future in which the efficacy of antibiotics, wormers, pesticides, herbicides and oil may all be reduced or in scarce supply.

This year’s theme of “Revival” emphasizes the degree to which healthy soils, extended crop rotations, diverse forms of agriculture and abundant opportunities for the next generation are vitally connected with thriving rural communities, healthy ecosystems and vibrant rural economies.

Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2018 annual conference is supported by several major sponsors, including: Albert Lea Seed; Applegate Natural & Organic Meats; Clif Bar & Co.; Grain Millers; Iowa State University Department of Agronomy and Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture; Niman Ranch; Premier 1 Supplies; and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Practical Farmers of Iowa strengthens farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information-sharing. Our values include: welcoming everyone; creativity, collaboration and community; viable farms now and for future generations; and stewardship and ecology. Founded in 1985, farmers in our network raise corn, soybeans, livestock, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. To learn more, visit