2024 Soil Health Conference Student Video and Essay Contest Winners

Essay Contest

Post-Secondary Category

First Place – Magan Nash, South Dakota State University

Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, and Healthy People

Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” Roosevelt wrote these words in a letter to governors, in which he emphasized the importance of proper soil management and addressed the establishment of soil conversation programs. This letter, written in 1937, came in response to the tragedy of the dirty 30s, when severe dust storms ravished the Great Plains. These dust storms were the culmination of severe droughts, poor soil management practices, ineffective policies, and a general misunderstanding on the importance of soil health. The effects of the dust storms rippled throughout the nation by deteriorating the economy and triggering the Great Depression.

The importance of learning history is that by reflecting upon past mistakes and successes, we can apply these lessons to present scenarios to positively impact future generations. Throughout history, this relationship of past, present, and future is evident in the fact that history often repeats itself. In this example, Roosevelt reiterated the importance of learning from the dirty 30s in order to preserve soil. One of the proactive measures taken was the establishment of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 1933. The NRCS aims to “deliver conservation solutions so agricultural producers and landowners can protect natural resources and feed a growing world.” The mission of the NRCS serves as a testament to the interconnectedness of the soil, food supply, and people. Through proper care of natural resources, producers can grow healthy food to promote consumer health and wellbeing. Although the dirty 30s and Great Depression were trying times, valuable lessons were learned. Therefore, by learning from these historical examples and taking intentional actions, we, as agriculturalists, can proactively work to protect our country’s soil, food supply, and people.


High School Category

First Place – Kayce Berger, Waubay School District

Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, and Healthy People

Healthy soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture and is essential for producing nutritious and safe foods. Soil health refers to the capacity of soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soil is characterized by a balanced composition of organic matter, minerals, water, air, and a diverse community of microorganisms. These components work together to support plant growth, regulate water and nutrient cycles, and suppress pests and diseases. Healthy soil has good structure and tilth, which allows for adequate root penetration, water infiltration, and air exchange, which are all critical factors for plant growth and productivity.

The link between healthy soil and healthy food is undeniable. Nutrient-dense foods are derived from crops grown in soils that are rich in essential minerals and organic matter. Research has shown that the nutritional quality of food is directly influenced by the health of the soil in which it is grown. Studies have demonstrated that organic farming practices that focus on building soil health result in higher levels of essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in crops compared to conventionally grown counterparts. Healthy people are evident in the impact of diet on human health. Nutrient-rich foods play a crucial role in preventing diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular, and certain types of cancer.

Healthy soil serves as the foundation for sustainable agriculture by providing essential nutrients to crops while also contributing to environmental resilience through improved water retention and reduced erosion. Healthy food derived from nutrient-dense crops grown in healthy soils plays a crucial role in meeting human nutritional needs while reducing the risk of exposure to harmful contaminants. Healthy people benefit from access to nutritious foods that support overall well-being and reduce the incidence of diet-related diseases.


Middle School Category

First Place – Ava Bjerke, Webster Area Middle School

Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, and Healthy People

Since the beginning of time, humankind has learned to use the land to fulfill their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing. They focused on themselves, only using what they needed to survive. In more recent years, people have begun to use the fertile soil for commercial farming and raising livestock. Practices such as tilling and fertilizer applications have come into play to make for more efficient production, but they are proven to be unhealthy for our precious soil.

Soil is alive. It’s not just dirt, soil is also made of bacteria, fungi, plant roots, and billions of other microorganisms that help break down the nutrient-rich material. When organic matter breaks down, carbon is taken out of the atmosphere and put into the soil. It is in this process of breaking down material that nutrients and carbon are created and absorbed into the soil. Since the nutrients are being made in the soil, plants growing above the surface are constantly absorbing these nutrients and, in the process growing stronger. The water the plants need so desperately to survive comes from the nutrient dense soil and the plants end up chock-full of the essential vitamins and minerals we need in our diets.

Adding these super healthy plants, whether they be corn, lettuce, strawberries, or any other farm-grown food is crucial to our healthy lifestyles. Eating healthy sets out the path for the rest of our lives, and it all starts with the soil. If pollution, tillage, and other bad practices that are slowly killing the microorganisms found in the soil continue to relentlessly occur, we can kiss our comfortable and healthy lifestyles goodbye.

So, take the first step and start promoting soil health. It is the baseline of our lives here in South Dakota.


Video Contest

South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s 2024 Student Soil Health Video Contest was open to all K-12 students in South Dakota. Prizes for the contest were $750 for first place, $500 for second place, and $100 each for the three videos tied for third place.

First Place – Leela Bosworth and Katy Scott – Soil Health & My Community

Spearfish Middle School

Second Place – Webster High School FFA How would improved soil health benefit your community?

Third Place – Tayzi Herrmann (tie)

Homeschooled – Whitewood, SD

Third Place – Larissa, Elizabeth, and Grace Fossum (tie)

Canton, SD, Elementary and Middle School

Third Place – Webster High School FFA (tie)

2023 Soil Health Conference Student Essay Contest Winners

As part of the Soil Health Conference, SDSHC conducted a student essay contest. The contest had three categories: post-secondary, high school, and middle school. The award for the post-secondary category winner was $400. The awards for the high school and middle school winners were $200.

Post-Secondary Category

First Place – Caleb McGregor, South Dakota State University

How does soil health affect your future?
Soil health affects my future by improving the productivity of the land. Everything we produce in agriculture is dependent on the land we raise it on. It is our duty as agriculturalist to take care for the soil to ensure the success of our future generation. For as long as humans have been farming and ranching, we’ve seen both sides of soil health. Soil health not only affects the productivity of farmers but can also affect an entire nation. If we do not care for the soil, we cannot ensure we have a future on this earth. At South Dakota State, I am perusing two degrees, a major in Agronomy and in Agricultural/Biosystem Engineering. Pursuing these degrees allows me to do my part in helping others and myself take the best care of the lands we live from. Caring about soil health not only improves the lands but also preserves the culture and industry we all love so much. Agriculture is more than an industry, it’s a way of life.

I’ve been apart of agriculture ever since I could remember. My family has used several restorative practices on our land such as utilizing reduced/no tillage, rotating crops, rotational grazing, and cover crops. Since then, I’ve gotten to experiment with those same practices through my FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience where I rented a quarter of land that was flood irrigated and planted a 12-plant cover crop mix which consisted of native grasses and forbs. I utilized this quarter of land by rotational grazing my sheep flock. This worked extremely well, and I plan to continue to improve my methods to ensure my soil is healthy. I firmly believe that soil is alive and the better you treat the soil the better it will treat you.


High School Category

First Place – Riley Ash, Webster Area High School

How does diversity benefit agriculture?
What does diversity look like in agriculture and how can this benefit agriculture?Diversity in agriculture can be as simple as growing multiple crops in your rotation. Diversity could be as simple as planting five crops instead of two. A more advanced use of diversity is including livestock and soil health related practices. Some practices include no-till, cover crops, and using natural fertilizers.

The human eye is not able to see them but there are microorganisms working in the soil to better it. These microorganisms are part of our diversity. Reactions these microorganisms do help break down dead materials and nutrient assimulation. Nutrient assimilation is the process of absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other chemicals from food as part of the nutrition of of an organism. If you take a standard soybean/corn farm, nutrient cycling is very slow. Multiple crops with a range of classifications help increase the nutrient cycling process.

With only two crops, the ground can become infected with diseases. Introducing more crops can reduce diseases and parasites like corn root worm. Each crop brings a different attribute. Legumes, with the aide of bacteria, do a process called nitrogen fixing. This process is where molecular nitrogen in the air are converted into the ground. This nitrogen benefits corn and wheat which use nitrogen as one of the most essential nutrients to the plant.

All biology involved with the ground work together as one group. Doing soil practices with our biology in mind, we can help increase the soil’s productivity to increase performance. It is important to keep diversity involved to increase the operations profits, yields, and overall stability of the operation.


Middle School Category

First Place – Londyn Groneberg, Black Hills Christian Academy

How does soil affect our future?

Soil plays a huge role in our world and in our future. Soil helps us to grow crops. Soil helps to regulate our atmosphere. It helps to reduce flooding, and helps to drive our nitrogen and carbon cycles. Having healthy soil is the foundation for us having sustainable and productive agriculture. When we manage our soil’s health it allows us to work with the land rather than working against it. Managing soils health authorizes us to minimize erosion, to boost water infiltration, to better nutrient cycling, and to ultimately just improve our soils strength.

There are many things that affect our soil in good and bad ways. There’s many soil management practices, weather conditions and cropping systems that influence the health of our soil. Some things affecting soil health are monocropping, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, overgrazing, and even intensive cultivation. All these things and more disturb the soil leaving it vulnerable to water erosion and wind, leading it to damage the complex systems within and underneath the soil. But there are also many things leading to the benefit of the soil. Some things you can do for the health of our soil is to use crop rotation, test your soil, add organic matter to our soil, protect the topsoil, don’t use chemicals unless there is no alternative, and incorporate compost to soil to increase water and nutrients for plants along with increasing the quality of our air.

Soil affects our future in many ways by providing us with habitats that support many different things, giving us food, giving us the nutrients we need to survive by working with the cycles of the earth, and protecting us from droughts and flooding. So, next time you think about our soil, think of ways to only make it better.

2022 Soil Health Conference Student Contest Winners

As part of the Soil Health Conference, SDSHC conducted student photo and essay contests. Each contest had three categories: post-secondary, high school, and middle school. The awards for the post-secondary category were $400 for first place and $200 for second place. The awards for the high school and middle school categories were $200 for first place and $100 for second place. All first and second place winners will also receive hoodies. In the photo contest, students could submit photos that portrayed one of two different contest themes: diversity and legacy. In the essay contest, students could submit essays to explain how soil health will affect their future careers or how soil health practices make agricultural operations more resilient.

2022 Student Photo Contest Winners

Post-secondary Category

First Place – Ashilyn Hulstein

South Dakota State University

Second Place – Riley Leeson

South Dakota State University

High School Category

First Place – Karlie Stiefvater

McCook Central High School

Second Place – Kayla Jordan

Clark High School

Middle School Category

First Place – Izaac Richards

Bon Homme Middle School

Second Place – Addison Timmons

Deuel Middle School

2022 Student Essay Contest Winners

Post-secondary Category

First Place – Nicole Baumann, South Dakota State University

How do soil health practices make agricultural operations more resilient?

This past summer I had the opportunity to participate in an internship where I worked closely with a soil and water conservationist. Every day I worked one-on-one with producers improving their grazing and cropping systems through their management of the land and soil — mainly through implementation of the soil health principles. Each individual I worked with was at different stages in their management goals. In a less-than-ideal summer for growing conditions due to the severe drought, I was able to witness firsthand how implementing soil health practices leads to an overall more resilient farm operation.

So many farmers and ranchers across the Midwest watched helplessly while their work and livelihood shriveled in the field. Farming is inherently stressful, and a crisis like we saw with the summer drought only increased the stress farmers faced. Taking the initiative to invest in your soil is a direct investment to the profitability of your farm and its future. A healthy soil, when taken care of, protects you no matter what mother nature decides to throw your way. Farming systems that work to build soil health through diversity and continuous living cover provide multiple benefits. These systems restore nutrient and water cycles, reducing the need for chemical inputs and irrigation. They improve wildlife habitat, restore landscape hydrology, and return carbon to the soil. They provide a greater diversity of food that is more nutrient-dense and provide greater resilience in response to stressors, be that natural or man-made. Locally derived soil nutrition and locally distributed food keeps money in our community, builds economic resilience, and restores food sovereignty — farming in a way that builds soil health fuels abundance.

A recent mentor of mine has a saying that “agriculture, done well, heals.” The drought brought many frustrations. When everyone seemed to be at wit’s end, “agriculture, done well, heals” was the mantra. Healthy soil is defined as the ability of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem. Nature is resilient, as are farmers. It just took a reminder that it will rain again, and when it does, those soils supporting a vital living ecosystem will drink and breathe. Then they will go to work. After this past summer I believe this to be true. I believe that agriculture done well heals the soil, heals the land, heals the economy, heals the community, and heals the farm for hopefully many generations to come.

Second Place – Ashilyn Hulstein, South Dakota State University

How do soil health practices make agricultural operations more resilient?

Throughout the past couple of decades, we have seen a steady decline in both farmland and agricultural operations. This is detrimental for a number of reasons with one of the biggest factors being that agricultural operations produce food for the entire world. With a decrease in farmland and agricultural operations, there is also a decrease in production through acreage. There is not a lot that can be done to stop this decline, but we can do whatever is possible to protect the agricultural operations that remain.

One way we can do this is through the promotion and implementation of soil health practices. Soil health practices have a wide range of helping capabilities from decreasing erosion, improving soil structure, and even increasing soil moisture. When producers have to deal with these issues before soil health practices are used, they may find themselves harvesting a crop with a lower yield than what they would have wanted. In years of drought, soil health practices such as cover crops and no-till will help hold moisture in the upper layers of the ground for longer periods of time. In years with extreme wet conditions, these same soil practices will help the water to drain into the ground rather than sit on the soil surface and cause runoff and erosion.

Many soil health practices in the end will reduce a producer’s input cost and increase their profitability at the end of each season. When soil health practices are used, agricultural operations are able to be more resilient no matter the situation and continue to be productive for generations to come.

High School Category

First Place – Matt Mork, Webster High School

Soil health practices have increased in popularity as farmers across the nation seek methods to increase the resilience and productivity of their operations. These methods are rooted in The Five Principles of Soil health, 1) Soil Cover, 2) Limited Soil Disturbance, 3) Live Roots, 4) Plant Diversity, and 5) Livestock Integration. Practicing the five principles and techniques which promote them will increase an operation’s resilience against adverse conditions and yield healthy crops and rangelands in any environment.

Maintaining soil cover has many benefits and directly contributes to operation resilience. Soil cover controls erosion by providing a barrier between the soil and environmental forces which may destroy soil aggregates, such as rain or winds. Soil loss through erosion can drain the productive capacity of a soil, as the majority of nutrients are held in the A horizon, or topsoil. Soil cover also helps maintain a healthy soil temperature, allowing decomposers and plant roots to thrive and build new soil.

Soil disturbance breaks soil surface cover and destroys aggregates. Soil structure acts as a natural moisture regulation system by draining excess water and holding water in dry conditions. By destroying aggregates and the structure built by soil microorganisms, a soil’s ability to drain excess water and circulate air is greatly impaired, reducing an operation’s resilience against adverse growing conditions such as drought or excess moisture. Tillage also grants dormant weed seeds the opportunity to grow and compete with crops. Overall, tillage and other forms of heavy soil disturbance can impair a crop’s ability to thrive in unfavorable conditions, therefore it is best to implement minimum or no-tillage practices to fortify soils and yield healthy crops in diverse and unpredictable environments.

Feeding soil through a diverse cropping rotation which mimics nature is very important when creating a resilient operation. A combination of warm and cool season grasses and broadleaf plants can utilize excess moisture, suppress weeds, build organic matter, reduce compaction, and fix nitrogen in soilds. Cover crops paired with production crops in a rotation can fertilize depleted soils and regulate moisture. They can also prevent soil compaction, which is a very common issue in wet areas and with heavy implements such as grain carts. Crop rotations which cover both growing seasons and a variety of plant species are essential for the farmer looking to increase the resilience of his operation, especially against drought and soil depletion.

A diverse cropping rotation also increases the versatility of a field, because many crops are viable livestock feed. Cover crops provide an alternative feed source for livestock, especially in dry conditions when pastures are at risk of overgrazing. Livestock balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio of crop residue and recycle many of the nutrients in the field, as well as control weeds. Utilizing cover crops in tandem with livestock allows producers to reap the benefits of both soil health practices, especially the feed security provided by cover crops.

Overall, implementation of soil health practices increases the resilience of operations, especially against drought, excess water, and erosion.

Second Place – Seth Schoon, Sunshine Bible Academy

Many grazing practices disguise themselves as promoting soil health. These practices are dressed up to give the appearance of sound soil health doctrine. In reality, however, they can cause many negative effects to prey upon your grasslands. They may claim to promote resiliency in your forage as they themselves destroy that resiliency. The actual methods which protect our agricultural operations from biologically collapsing should be studied. This is through analyzing facts, which is science.

The science tells us that to gain healthy soil one must coordinate the grass’s partial defoliation with its active growth stages. In other words, make sure the cow bites the plants at specific times in the plants’ life that will trigger root tiller growth. This fact is very important in improving agricultural operations’ resiliency. For instance, if the grass is bitten too early in its growing season, such as before June 1st, the plant will not recover to full potential. Thirty percent should be bitten off during the normal growing season. Or if 50% of the plant’s herbage biomass is consumed after mid-October, the fall root tillers will be set back the next growing season. These dates that are on the calendar, such as June 1st and mid-October, are not the important factors though. The important factors of grazing productively are, not beginning to graze in the spring until the grass is at the three-leaf stage, or biting off too much of the fall tillers in the autumn.

The best calculated management that incorporates biological effective grazing is a “twice over” rotation. If the proper principles are incorporated into this strategy, then it will further promote soil health resiliency. If the manager of the grazing operation effectively uses the “twice-over” rotation, then the grass’s partial defoliation will be coordinated correctly with the plants’ growth stages. This will improve grass health which will in turn improve the competitiveness of the grasslands. The native grass will be able to compete with shrubs and introduced species for water and nutrients, thus enabling them to grow their tillers and create more herbage. This process culminates in the grass’s resiliency to drought and fire. Even if the top of the ground is dry or burnt, underground the plant parts and rhizosphere (area of soil that surrounds a root that is alive) are storing nutrients and water.

Resiliency in our grass and its tillers should be the target of every ranch manager. With resiliency, our soil and grass will withstand divergent impacts. Our grasslands should also be managed as if they were renewable resources, as indeed they are, that generate economic wealth if they are managed according to soil health principles. These healthier grasslands will not only prove to be more resilient, but they also will provide cattle with abundant nutrients by ensuring the full value of plant production. It is important to remember that the management above the ground should always benefit the soil organisms under the ground. The science shows that biology is key to lasting soil health resiliency.

Middle School Category

First Place – Izaac Richards, Bon Homme Middle School

How do soil health practices make agriculture more resilient?

Soils that are properly managed are more resilient and recover more quickly during hard conditions. Using no till, you save earthworms, make nutrients for plants, and stop erosion. When grazing animals in fields, you improve soil health and get feed for cows. Improving soil health also increases organic matter, makes better yielding crops and covers up the soil to stop erosion. When you have thick vegetation, you protect the soil by stopping erosion because it is covered up. Soil forms slowly, and you don’t want to destroy the soil with erosion.

When doing no-till, you help the soil. The earthworms in the soil dig tunnels for plant roots to grow through, and if there were no earthworm tunnels, then plants’ roots can have trouble digging down and growing. With no-till, you don’t dry out the soil, and it helps plants germinate because without water, plant seeds cannot germinate. No-till also helps if there is too much water. The earthworm tunnels help water go into the soil, so water does not sit on the top and flood plants.

Also, planting wheat or rye in fields helps soil. When leaving residue on the surface, it protects soil from erosion, and even leaving cornstalks on the surface helps. My dad says it may pay well in the short term, but in the long run it affects the soil. You need something on the surface to protect the soil. I like to put straw around my plants, and it helped them and kept the soil moist, so I did not have to water as much. Cover crops help cover the soil, and we feed them to the cows. It provided nutrients and now stops snow, so ground cover is very important. Cover crops can be cheaper and very handy. If you have a really wet area, you can plant cover crops to stop erosion and use the extra water. We have a wet area, and it dried up after we planted some cover crops, and now it’s better there.

Finally, keeping the soil full of nutrients by planting cover crops and grazing cows helps plants regrow and be better. Not doing tillage is very important to have more earthworms and plant material on the surface to help stop erosion. Most people don’t think this is important, but I think its super important and will do all I can to keep soil healthy.

Second Place – Sienna Martinell, Deuel Middle School

How do soil health practices make agricultural operations more resilient?

Soil health is probably one of the most important pieces in agriculture. Without healthy soil, much of the agricultural businesses would not be able to run properly. Having good and proper soil health practices is very important in allowing your agricultural business to function properly and become more resilient.

Having healthy soil is the basis in productive agriculture. Soil health practices allow agricultural producers to work with their land rather than against it. Healthy soil practices can help you to reduce erosion, which can help with crop productivity and the quality of the water. It can also help to improve water infiltration. This allows the soil to store water, which helps the plants to grow. Having healthy soil practice can also help with nutrient cycling. This is important because it allows farmers to maintain the fertility of the soils. This also allows them to protect water resources that are used. Using healthy soil practices is important because it, ultimately, improves the resilience of a land, which improves crops and the agricultural community.

Using healthy soil practices also helps to create healthy soil. Healthy soil has many benefits, such as the ability to absorb and hold water. This helps to create less evaporation and more resilience to drought or extreme weather conditions. It also helps to improve the structure of the soil. Improving soil structure is important because it opens the soil to optimal air and water movement. This all results in higher yields of crops, which is important in the agricultural business and community in general.

In conclusion, healthy soil practices are probably one of the most important elements in the agricultural community and allows agriculturists to have healthy soil. This maximizes the use of soil and allows farmers to yield healthy crops and protect the land in the process.

West River Soil Health School Registration Open!

In 2024, the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition will host an additional Soil Health School in west of the Missouri River! The 2024 West River Soil Health School with be held June 26-27 near Caputa, SD! This school will focus on issues specific to the land, climate, and ag production systems of wester South Dakota. Class size is limited, so early registration is strongly encouraged!

News & Events

Coalition plans additional Soil Health School for West River

Coalition plans additional Soil Health School for West River

By Stan Wise PIERRE, SD – Since 2016, the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition has held an annual Soil Health School to offer an intensive educational experience that combines classroom instruction with hands-on field exercises. However, those schools have been held...

Grazing livestock on cropland pays off

Grazing livestock on cropland pays off

By Stan Wise PIERRE, SD – The core idea behind the regenerative agriculture movement is a simple one: Mimic nature. What did farmland look like before it was farmed, and how can producers make their operations look more like that picture? This concept lies at the...

Farmer reaps higher yields by interseeding soybeans

Farmer reaps higher yields by interseeding soybeans

By Stan Wise Alex Frasier has spent a lot of time studying what it takes to grow a successful crop. After studying ag production and precision technology at Lake Area Technical College, he has worked in ag retail and currently works as an agronomist in Aberdeen, SD....