The importance of soil health cannot be overstated. It supports vigorous plant growthby promoting the efficient use of nutrients and water, protecting against erosion andcompaction, and aiding in disease and pest management. Soil health drives farm productivityand resilience against weather extremes.
But the soil is an incredibly complexenvironment, and for farmers to know howto improve their ground, they first need tolearn about its condition.
That is why a multidisciplinary teamfrom Cornell University created a new kindof soil assessment‚Äîwith early fundingfrom multiple SARE grants as well as othersources‚Äîand why interest in it is steadilygrowing, not just in the Northeast butacross the country.
Traditional soil tests, which arealso important managementtools, are typicallylimited to measuringnutrient levels andpH. They do notreveal anythingabout the physicalstructure ormicrobial lifepresent in the soil,yet such characteristicsstrongly influencecrop yields as well as theefficiency of inputs such as waterand fertilizers. In contrast, Cornell's soilhealth assessment reports typically includemanagement recommendations to addressspecifically identified constraints and promotesoil-building practices such as covercropping, reduced tillage, the use of compostor manure, and diversified rotationsthat include perennial crops.
"As far as the soil health assessment, it'sreally an eye opener. Quite an eye opener,"says Donn Branton, one of many NewYork farmers who collaborated with theresearchers who developed it. A long-timeno-tiller, Branton says he has a new appreciationfor the role of soil biology in cropproduction, and is now using more mixed-speciescover crops in his rotations.
The need for the assessment was bornout of a survey of Northeastern farmers,many of whom used traditional soil testsbut "felt there was something more goingon with their soils," says Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of the soil health divisionat USDA's Natural Resources ConservationService. "There were erosion issues, theyhad weed issues, they had decreasing yieldseven though they needed to irrigate more,put on more fertilizer, more pesticides.And they really didn'thave good diagnostictools for all of theseissues."
Beginning in2003, three SAREgrants supportedthe assessment'screation and earlyoutreach efforts.The Cornell teamidentified the mostmeaningful soil healthindicators to include, andworked with farmers like Branton torefine them through on-farm testing.
"That initial funding was critical," vanEs says. "What is also very nice about theSARE funding program is that it requires afairly intense collaboration with farmers orconsultants or Extension agents. And thatreally was very critical to making this projectsuccessful, because if you want this newtechnology to be adopted by farmers, youneed to involve them in the developmentprocess right from the start."
The Cornell lab handles about 2,000 soilsamples each year, and the assessment isin "a rapid growth phase," van Es says. Theteam is now collecting soil samples fromacross the country so that the assessmentcan be adapted for use at the national level.
For more information, see the project reportsfor grants LNE03-175, LNE06-235 and ENE09-110.