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Examining Soil Health Perceptions in North American Agriculture

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

Soil Health and Its Importance

Soil health is defined as the “continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans”*. Soil is a resource shared between generations, and managing soil health is crucial for its longevity and sustainability for future generations.

There is growing concern about the abundance and quality of the top soil remaining on our planet. Pictured below, top soil is the uppermost 6-10 inches of the soil profile. Almost 95% of our food is grown in top soil. Maria Helena-Semedo of the FAO stated that “...if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world’s top soil could be gone in 60 years”*. A lack of top soil will drastically decrease our ability to feed people, and the food that is grown would likely provide fewer vital nutrients*.

Image: Layers of the Soil Horizon

Farmers and agricultural workers have an important role to play in the management of soil quality. After all, they are stewards of the land we grow on. But this begs the question, does the agriculture industry share the same concerns about soil health as researchers? Thanks to a survey performed by Soil Health Nexus, a university-led agricultural research team in the United States, we can analyze differing opinions from various audiences in the agriculture industry*.

There were approximately 300 respondents in the survey, where 75% of the respondents were farmers, extension educators, or federal and state agency staff. This is not a representative sample size of the agricultural industry as a whole, but provides a baseline indication of farm practices and future agricultural goals in North America.

Defining Soil Health

Respondents of this survey were asked how they would define soil health. Though there was a plethora of responses,

it was found that the most important characteristic of soil health was biology, and the most important effect of soil health was productivity4.

Other notable characteristics of soil health included tilth or structure, chemistry, and organic matter. Other notable effects of soil health were ecosystem sustainability and resiliency.

We can see that respondents have identified the importance of biological soil activity. Additionally, soil productivity is of utmost importance as well. Soil biology and productivity go hand in hand. Soil microorganisms are responsible for maintaining the soil food web and natural nutrient cycling processes. Similar to larger food webs in terrestrial habitats, like a forest, small organisms get eaten by bigger organisms and energy moves up the web. This relationship is illustrated in the graphic below.

Picture : Diagram of the Soil Food Web showing how the lower level, smaller organisms feed the level above them. Attribution: Soil Biology Primer/USDA-NRCS website

By maintaining a biologically active soil with large communities of microorganisms, farmers can increase yield, soil productivity, water holding capacity, and soil structure.

The microorganisms present in the soil will restore the natural process of nutrient cycling, create plant growth promoting hormones, and stress abating enzymes.

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Which Soil Health Benefits are Important to Farmers?

When asked to rank the benefits of soil health, respondents stated that their five highest priority benefits are: building organic matter, water infiltration, erosion control, nutrient management, and water holding capacity*.

Soil organic matter is the fraction of soil that consists of plant or animal tissue in various stages of decomposition5. Most soil used in cultivation has organic matter between 0-30%, with most top soil averaging approximately 3-6% organic matter. There are three components to soil organic matter: