In the coming months, more than $1.6 million in conservation grant money will go to the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association and a newly formed group called Health First to support growers who want to conduct on-farm experiments on how to improve soil health.

"We are very honored to receive this grant award," said CCTA President Michael Thompson who farms near Almena, Kan., in making the announcement. "It is exciting to work on a project that will help farmers and ranchers improve their production practices and soil health across the High Plains."

CCTA was one of nine applicants selected nationwide, from among 73 proposals, for USDA's new Soil Health Demonstration Trials program, which was created as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. CCTA will implement a project it calls FARMS: Farmers Advancing Regenerative Management Systems over the next three years in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.

The project will support producers in the High Plains by providing incentive payments to create and implement comprehensive soil health management plans as well as to facilitate farmer-to-farmer mentoring and conduct thorough evaluations of soil health, nutrient density, economic factors and social outcomes on participating farms.

Several project partners will join CCTA to implement the project, including Colorado State University and K-State's Western Kansas Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, as well as independent technical advisers and scientific labs.

Still, High Plains agricultural producers will be at the forefront of driving the initiative.

"From the very beginning, we wanted this effort to be led by farmers," said Joni Mitchek, CCTA coordinator and lead administrator for the project, based at Kit Carson, Colorado, where she farms with her family.

While CCTA will administer the grant, some of the money will flow to a new start-up non-profit called Health First, which is still in the early stages of getting organized.

Becky Ravenkamp, who is originally from Hugo, Colo., and now lives in northeast Nebraska, is serving as the group's executive director. She also works for No Till on the Plains, another soil health education organization, while her husband Scott is currently the production contract manager for Green Cover Seed, based in Bladen, Neb.

Ravenkamp said the new nonprofit was created by three prominent farmer-leaders who are well-known in soil health circles: Rick Bieber, a pioneering no-till farmer from Trail City, South Dakota; Keith Thompson, another farmer from Osage City, Kan., who has been in continuous no-till since 1991; and Bud Davis, the Salina, Kansas-based owner of Conservation Demonstrations, which provides runoff and soil erosion simulation tools.

While attending soil health meetings in Europe and learning about farming practices there, the three became concerned about the constraints being placed on farmers and felt the need to get proactive and take action to prevent a similar scenario in the U.S., Ravenkamp said.

"It was the brainchild of farmers sitting around in a meeting who had seen some things they were alarmed by," she explained.

The new organization wants to be on the frontlines of defining what regenerative agriculture is and where the movement needs to go in the future.

The interface between regenerative agricultural production and the nutrient density of food and feed, as well as the bio-availability of nutrients, is a vast new frontier filled with rapidly changing scientific developments. Health First plans to assemble expert teams to look into various aspects of plant nutrition and animal and gut health, and how those things are connected to various farming practices.

"We're pretty excited about it," Ravenkamp said. "We're still in the administrative process of getting our 501c approval and putting teams in place, but we'll hopefully get rolling on some of these projects in January."

In putting together the successful grant proposal, CCTA and Health First also brought in Lauren Hafford, of Boulder, a mechanical and design engineer who won an emerging entrepreneur fellowship for her work to develop tools for improving the profitability of conservation farming practices. She will serve as the project's data coordinator.

Ravenkamp said one of the big challenges for the soil health movement has been a lack of scientific data that supports clear definitions of healthy soil, healthy food and how the two are correlated.

"Along with doing a battery of soil tests on farms with this grant and looking at key soil health indicators, we will also be looking at profitability and the economic things going on with the practices they are using," she said. "We'll also be looking at the social aspects of regenerative systems. It will be interested to see what CSU comes up with for that aspect of it."

Anecdotal evidence appears to show that positive support groups and peer mentoring helps farmers explore new ideas, adopt new farming practices and keep a positive outlook, she said.

For the nutrient research, the project will test grain grown on participating farms and compare it to conventionally grown grain to look for measurable differences. "That will be our first toe-dip into that kind of research, and hopefully we can eventually expand into some other nutrient areas we would also like to explore," Ravenkamp said.

Also on the horizon is helping consumers identify healthier food products.

"You often hear that organic is healthier, but healthier meaning what? It might be organic, but how is that tied to improving the health of the soil?" she questioned.

"Organic has done a great job of marketing, but what does that really mean? They've done a great job of branding, but what really is nutrient density? What really is healthy food? How do we quantify that? And just because a nutrient is in the food, that doesn't mean my body has access to it and can process it."

Eventually, Health First might move toward developing some kind of seal-of-approval to designate scientifically proven nutrient dense food that has been produced using regenerative farming practices, she said.

Better economic data is vitally important as well, Ravenkamp said.

Economic profiling of soil health practices has been difficult to do so far, because every farm and every situation is different, she said.

"I know for a fact there are regenerative agriculturists out there that have been told by the bank that they can no longer do what they're doing because they are growing crops that are not insurable," she said. "So now the banks are forcing them back into crops that have a safety net. We need to get to the point where the soil is the insurance, not the government."

Better economic modeling could also be used to shift farm policy in a new direction, she added.

"Why do we have to grow more and more of these empty calories that aren't doing any of us any good? If the focus is on producing more nutritious calories, then chasing yield becomes irrelevant. And if we chase quality we can really focus on soil health," she said.

The new FARMS project has enough funding to enroll 24 producers, with an application process expected to be announced in coming weeks. CCTA will also provide producers with more information about the project during the annual High Plains No Till Conference in Burlington, scheduled for Feb. 4 and 5.

The project also has a dedicated website at farmsproject.org.

As for Health First and its future, Ravenkamp said the name of the organization says it all.

"We want to look at all aspects of health on the farm: mental health, financial health, the financial viability of the community, all of those things, and figure out how do we get there," she said.