Soil health experts from across North America plan to integrate more research projects to provide agricultural producers and policy makers with economically relevant, science-based recommendations for improving drought resilience as well as reducing nutrient losses.

The Soil Health Institute (SHI), an organization consisting of a broad collaboration of agricultural leaders, held its first annual meeting July 27 – July 29 in Louisville, Ky.  Approximately 130 soil health experts, including farmers, land grant university specialists, USDA scientists, conservation leaders, soil laboratory scientists and foundation/non-governmental organization leaders identified key soil processes influencing productivity, resilience and environmental quality during the meeting.

Members’ goals include conducting a national assessment of soil health and producing a digital decision support tool that enables growers to anticipate which soil amendments and crop rotations will have the greatest impact on a field’s annual return. The Institute also will curate soil health research reports and information.

“We made bold progress during this meeting in that members were able to identify and agree on standardized initial tiers of soil health measurement, which is a huge step forward to creating a nationwide assessment baseline,” Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of SHI, explained.  Members addressed metadata collection, stratified sampling design and an overall strategy to select locations for the initial U.S. soil health assessment.

In future research, members agreed to:

  • Prioritize economic return on investment for growers, focusing on single-year benefits when possible;
  • Include growers in Institute committees, research planning and development;
  • Build a planned network of experimental research that allows researchers in biology, physics, chemistry, economics, agronomy, and sociology to collaborate and integrate research, which will provide growers and policy makers with accurate information;
  • Prioritize soil vitality, identifying the research gaps that will answer questions such as which crop rotations improve microbial soil function – improving drought resilience, increasing water infiltration rates and storage, decreasing run-off, and reducing soil-borne diseases, as well as improving yield and quality;
  • Focus on cropland and grazing land first and forest land in the future.

Members envision a dynamic Soil Health Cloud, supported by SHI’s new Research Landscape tool, which ultimately will bring Big Data to researchers, farmers and policy makers.

“We hear that space is the final frontier and sometimes oceanographers call the ocean depths the final frontier on earth,” says Bill Buckner, the chair of the Soil Health Institute’s Board of Directors. “But what Leonardo da Vinci said hundreds of years ago during the Renaissance, ‘we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot,’ is still true today.” Steve Shafer, the Institute’s Chief Scientific Officer, adds, “The biodioversity within a teaspoon of fertile soil rivals what we can see in an acre of tropical rainforest. The micro-environment at interface between the soil and a plant root does so much to condition plant health through nutrient and water uptake processes and through the interactions of roots with beneficial and pathogenic microbes. We know what happens to the top of a plant affects the roots and their relationships with soil organisms. How do all of these relationships fit together? How can we learn to manage this for the benefit of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems? How far can the scientific community go to understand this?”

“We invite farmers, scientists and others interested in enhancing soil health and our environment from all regions to join us as we move forward.  We still have a lot of work to do. Members want to provide highly useful research and policy support in the future that shows short- and long-term benefits.  We’re going to need leaders who are innovators and excellent stewards to be involved in working together to achieve the Institute’s mission – to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soils through science-based research and advancement,” Honeycutt said.

For more information on SHI, please visit www.soilhealthinstitute.org.