Strategy

Research shows that improving soil health increases carbon sequestration, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, increases drought resilience, enhances water quality, boosts crop yield, increases nutrient availability, provides pollinator habitat, and suppresses many plant diseases. Yet today, less than 5% of cropland in the U.S. is managed using the basic soil health practice of cover cropping.  To bring these on-farm and environmental benefits to scale, the Soil Health Institute provides information land managers need to know when adopting management systems to improve soil health, as described in our Theory of Change and Strategic Goals below.

Theory of Change

Strategic Goals

Climate Change

Provide the soil science knowledge and tactics needed for agriculture to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions

The U.S. agricultural sector emits approximately 582 million metric tonnes CO2e per year (EPA). Accordingly, USDA-NRCS has identified 29 conservation practices that reduce agricultural GHG emissions, many of which are the same practices used to improve soil health. However, achieving net zero emissions for U.S. agriculture requires significant increases in soil health practice adoption.

We will address this adoption gap by providing the soil science knowledge and tactics that will motivate farmers and ranchers to adopt these practices and provide the educational programs they need to support their adoption journey (Farmer Empowerment). Primary motivators will include establishing the business case and demonstrating just how healthy their soils can become and what that means for drought resilience, water quality, and other benefits.

The business case will be assessed for farmers employing soil health management systems over both long- and short-terms (i.e., during the transition period) across a range of crops, soils, and climates. This information will be used to develop a Predictive Economics Tool that will be ground-truthed with farmers to assist them when deciding whether to adopt soil health management systems.

An additional component of the business case for motivating adoption exists with the emergence of carbon (C) markets. However, measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of soil C are laborious, costly, and therefore limit farmer payment. Consequently, we will establish partnerships to develop and validate lower-cost alternatives for measuring soil C stocks in the field.

Establishing achievable levels of soil health is another motivator of adoption. These will be quantified using an approach developed and piloted by the SHI called Soil Health Targets. This approach is made possible by SHI’s 3-year, $6.5 million investment to identify a minimum data set of widely applicable soil health indicators. Results are based on evaluation of 31 measurements and 3 soil health assessment programs at 124 long-term experimental sites across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Because different soils have different capacities to store soil organic C, a co-benefit of Soil Health Targets is that we will also establish Soil C Targets at the same time. The benefits of improving soil health for building drought resilience, water quality, and others will be integrated into education programs (Farmer Empowerment).

  1. Farmers and ranchers will store more C in their soils, thereby improving soil health, reducing GHG emissions and reducing nutrient losses, all while building drought resilience and increasing profitability.
  2. The agriculture sector will make a significant contribution towards mitigating climate change.
  3. The agriculture industry will have a database for farmers/ranchers, advisors, field conservationists, and policymakers to assess the health of a given farm’s soils, the C sequestration capacity of those soils, the difference between a soil’s current status and what is achievable, and a science-based target for conservation planning and decision-making.

Regenerative Agriculture

Provide the scientific leadership for understanding, managing, and measuring soil health systems contributing to regenerative land management in agriculture and other ecosystems 

While sustainable agriculture has been a leading concept for the last 30 years, the concept of regenerative agriculture is now being widely embraced, especially by food industries and consumers. However, the term means very different things to different people. A recent meta-analysis of 229 studies and 25 practitioner websites concluded that improved soil health is the #1 outcome for regenerative agriculture (Newton et al., 2020). Consequently, providing the scientific leadership for implementing and measuring regenerative agricultural systems will simultaneously advance adoption of soil health management systems.

Newton, P., Civita, N.,Frankel-Goldwater, L., Bartel K., Johns, C., 2020. What is regenerative agriculture? a review of scholar and practitioner definitions based on processes and outcomes. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4:577723. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723

Based on the Soil Health Institute’s database of over 600 management practice impacts on soil properties across North America, we will develop a web-based tool for assessing the degree of regenerative agriculture principles adoption (e.g., the degree that a given practice “minimizes disturbance” (Principle #1)). This will standardize levels of adoption (and terminology) for the agriculture industry in a manner also consistent with soil health being the foundation for a regenerative agricultural system.

Another important aspect of regenerative agriculture is the impact of agricultural inputs on soil health. A survey of 10,000 farmers sponsored by the Soil Health Institute and conducted by Farm Journal’s Trust in Food showed that farmers are very interested in the effects of fertilizers, manures, pesticides, and biologicals on soil health. Consequently, the Institute commissioned an assessment of the scientific literature to establish the state of the science and identify gaps for each of the above categories of agricultural inputs. Based on that assessment, we will seek funding to address gaps in knowledge on the effect of agricultural inputs on soil health. Once funding is received, we will establish an agricultural input impact testing program where the Soil Health Institute will partner with organizations having the appropriate infrastructure to perform that research following the Institute’s protocols and guidance. This will include applying existing and newly developed techniques determined appropriate for evaluating agricultural input and management practice impacts on the soil microbiome and the microbially-mediated processes that affect soil functioning.

  1. The entire agricultural industry and its consumers will be provided with a standardized tool for assessing the degree by which a given agricultural product was grown employing the principles of regenerative agriculture.
  2. Farmers, agricultural consultants, and consumers will be provided unbiased, scientifically rigorous assessments of the impacts of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, manures, pesticides, and biologicals on soil health.
  3. New applications of contemporary techniques for evaluating the impacts of management practices and agricultural inputs on the soil microbiome will expand scientific and applied understanding of how to manage microbially-mediated processes to benefit soil functioning (e.g., nutrient cycling, C storage, pathogen suppression).

Water Resources

Provide the soil science knowledge and tactics needed for improving water quality and quantity with soil health systems

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that approximately 78% of U.S. rivers and streams are in only fair to poor biological condition (EPA, 2016). Nutrients from agriculture have been identified as a key contributor to poor water quality. Nutrient loss through both runoff and leaching is also related to water quantity because if crops do not take up nutrients due to drought, then those nutrients are more vulnerable to loss when precipitation events return. Notably, drought already results in $6-8 Billion in damages annually in the U.S. and is projected to significantly increase in frequency and intensity worldwide.

To address these issues, the Soil Health Institute will incorporate results of our research into educational programs, models, and other outlets to expand adoption of soil health systems that improve water quality and quantity.

Water Quality

We will incorporate our recent data and knowledge of the relationships between soil organic C and aggregate stability and how that affects runoff and leaching into education programs for farmers, consultants, conservation planners, and others. We will engage the environmental modeling community to revise their models to account for the changes in soil properties that occur when farmers adopt soil health systems and how those changes influence runoff, leaching, nutrient uptake, and related processes. We will communicate the improvements in water quality made possible from adopting regenerative soil health systems when educating others on using the regenerative agricultural principles tool (Regenerative Agriculture) and in our education programs for farmers, agricultural retailers, consultants, and consumers (Farmer Empowerment and Consumer Policy and Demand).

Water Quantity

We will integrate the Institute’s recent research on how changes in soil organic C impact a soil’s plant-available water holding capacity into USDA’s COMET-Farm model and make the algorithm available for any other models to use. We will include demonstrations of how increasing soil organic C increases plant-available water holding capacity in the Institute’s education programs for farmers, consultants, conservation planners, and others (Farmer Empowerment). We will add interpretations of available water holding capacity into our work establishing Soil Health Targets so farmers can learn the drought resilience benefits of adopting soil health systems and achieving their Soil Health Target (Climate Change).

  1. Farmers, consultants, conservation planners, policymakers and others will be informed on how storing more soil organic C builds drought resilience and reduces nutrient loss through leaching and runoff. This will motivate more farmers to adopt soil health systems and motivate policymakers to further support conservation programs, grants, and private industry in enhancing adoption of soil health systems.
  2. Widely used models for predicting management impacts on water quality will be updated to reflect the changes in soil properties from adopting soil health systems and their subsequent impacts on nutrient runoff, nutrient leaching, and erosion. This will support farmers, policymakers, consultants, and planners; and can be used to inform consumers to drive more market demand for food, fiber, feed, and fuel grown using soil health systems.

Farmer Empowerment

Provide farmers with the information they need when selecting and implementing soil health systems to be profitable, resilient, and environmentally sound

Farmers are well known to be some of the world’s best problem-solvers. However, a successful education program can help them learn practical, locally relevant information from other successful farmers and technical specialists to expedite their journey at improving the health of their soils and farms. In addition, many farmers receive their technical information from agricultural retailers and consultants, so providing education to those individuals can also increase farmer adoption of soil health systems.

We will conduct both virtual and in-person education programs to empower farmers to make well-informed decisions and transitions to a soil health management system. Programs will be tailored to be relevant for the local climate, crops, soils, and production challenges; and will integrate the experience and wisdom of local successful farmers and technical specialists.

The education programs will integrate both foundational and contemporary information, tools, and resources, such as the Institute’s findings on the economics of soil health on over 100 farms, predictions for building drought resilience, assessment of the achievable level of soil health for their particular soils (i.e., Soil Health Targets), methods to assess the health of their soils, and management practices for progressing toward their Soil Health Target.

We will provide education programs for agricultural retailers, Certified Crop Advisors, and other consultants that address many of the same topics as covered for farmers so that local field conservationists/consultants can also be valuable assets to assist farmers on their soil health journey.

  1. Farmers will be equipped to make well-informed land management decisions to improve the health (i.e., functioning) of their soils, build resilience to extreme weather, increase/sustain profitability, minimize nutrient and soil losses, minimize GHG emissions, and optimize nutrient use efficiency.
  2. Consultants, conservation planners, agricultural retailers, cooperative extension specialists and other advisors will be well-informed to provide technical assistance to farmers in making land management recommendations that improve soil health and provide multiple, on-farm environmental and societal benefits.

Consumer Demand + Policy

Provide the science, metrics, information and partnerships that will inform consumer demand and policies for food, fiber, feed, and fuel grown using soil health systems

Consumers and policymakers are increasingly engaged with understanding the environmental and social aspects associated with the way their food is grown, processed, and transported. The environmental benefits of soil health systems provide an opportunity to help drive more market demand for food, fiber, feed, and fuel grown using soil health systems.

Through Soil Health Institute and partner communications and marketing programs, we will expand communications on the environmental and on-farm benefits of soil health systems by incorporating information on water quality, climate change mitigation, drought resilience, on-farm economics, and others. We will demonstrate our regenerative agriculture principles adoption tool, which could potentially be used as a standardized tool for assessing regenerative practice adoption across the agriculture industry.

We will partner with other organizations to incorporate the Institute’s tools, knowledge, and experience into their regenerative agriculture/sustainability assessment platforms to support use of science-based outcome measures pertinent to advancing soil health by those organizations.

We will provide information to policymakers about the on-farm and societal benefits of soil health systems and respond to opportunities for providing information on current or planned government programs and policies where soil health plays a role.

  1. Consumers will become more aware of the environmental benefits that soil health systems bring.
  2. Organizations such as food, fiber, feed, and biofuel industries that market their products as having environmental benefits will create more market demand for their products grown using soil health systems.
  3. Sustainability/regenerative agriculture platforms used by many organizations will be updated to include science-based practice and outcome measures reflecting soil health.
  4. Policymakers will become better informed on these issues, leading to more effective policies that support soil health systems adoption.

Healthy Soils Are Fundamental for
Life On Earth

Your gift to the Soil Health Institute supports the adoption of regenerative soil health systems that store carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality, increase farm profitability, build drought resilience, increase nutrient availability, provide pollinator habitat, and suppress many plant diseases.

Together, in partnership with hundreds of organizations, the Soil Health Institute is addressing the needs of farmers, ranchers, conservationists, policymakers, and society by Enriching Soil, Enhancing Life.