Soil health journey in tune with Mother Nature
Updated: Jul 6
Conservationist’s lifelong journey towards better soil health for all takes another twist.
Jeff Zimprich, the recently retired NRCS State Conservationist in South Dakota, discusses conservation efforts from rangeland to cropland and producers to landowners.
Listen to his podcast interview with Robin “Buz” Kloot on Growing Resilience podcasts.
On a small livestock and row-crop farm east of Sioux Falls, Jeff Zimprich began what became a career-long love of nature and farm life focused on optimizing conservation practices.
His farm youth combined with U.S. Forest Service summer jobs in the Black Hills led to a range science degree at the University of Montana. The USDA Soil Conservation Service gave Zimprich his first job working with rangeland producers across Montana. His career path with NRCS led him to central and southwest Iowa field offices for many years, along with some national work in Washington, D.C. that honed his passion for the agency and its capabilities. Then nine years ago, he came home to South Dakota to lead USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) efforts as State Conservationist.
Zimprich says his journey to soil health, not unlike some ranchers and farmers, has been a slow evolution. “As I’ve made many observations and tried practices across the country, specifically in Montana and Iowa, some of the things didn’t quite turn out the way we’d hoped. There was so much focus at that time on soil erosion, we didn’t have an appreciation for soil health—and erosion wasn’t taking us the whole way to save and improve soils,” he says.
Soil health movement
Soil health thoughts were rolling around in Zimprich's head but it wasn't until he moved back to South Dakota that he began to promote it in earnest. “That’s where my enlightenment began, where I credit the educational efforts of NRCS Soil Health Specialist Jeff Hemenway and the producers proving how soil health practices bring soil alive. That’s when I realized we had to talk about soil health every chance we get to move this beneficial concept along.”
Working in many different landscapes over his career, Zimprich learned the value of conservation and land-use practices that don’t fight Mother Nature. “I’ve seen it on river bottoms, on steep slopes, in our Prairie Pothole region—producer land-use decisions can make conservation difficult. A real understanding of landscape and soil capabilities and working within them is critical to conservation and production success.”
Key benefits from healthy soils are improving profitability and resilience, Zimprich says. “I hear soil health producers say they are cutting input costs because the soil is improving,” he says. “I believe the more we work with Mother Nature and her weather extremes, a healthier soil resource can deliver a better bottom line, adding resilience beyond just producing more bushels or pounds of beef per acre.”
Ranchers focused on soil
Zimprich has also enjoyed watching ranchers evolve from cattle producers to grass managers to soil stewards. “Now I hear a lot of them talk about how soil health delivers a healthy rangeland that not only produces livestock for greater family ranch economics, it creates better water infiltration, water quality, helps wildlife and sequesters carbon.”
Practice what you preach is a lesson Zimprich carries into retirement as he heads full circle back to the family farm. “My goal is to make the farm healthier, to help me speak directly from a producer perspective. I hope my experiences will show that soil health principles really can work on any farm,” he adds.
A legacy of soil health leadership will continue in South Dakota, thanks to so many people committed to this cause, Zimprich says. “I’ve learned so much along my journey, from SCS and NRCS employees to valuable partners and many producers. I can’t thank them enough.” Now he’s ready to apply the direct advice from South Dakota’s Voices for Soil Health producer mentors to his own farm—he says some have already been coaching him.
Here’s more of what Zimprich had to say in this podcast:
“Soil health knows no bounds. It can be accomplished on the front lawn and is alive and well in our grasslands and our croplands. But we can always do more to become more resilient to handle the weather patterns coming our way.”
“We’re excited with our outreach to non-operating landowners (NOLOs) who are interested to understand the capabilities of their land, and how sometimes a push for higher returns can be less profitable and degrade the soil.”
“I’d like to give accolades and credit to our NRCS State Public Affairs Coordinator Colette Kessler and you, Buz, for developing and producing our Merit or Myth video series. It truly helped give people the truth behind soil health and help them see a path forward.”