Irvine, R., M. Houser, S. T. Marquart-Pyatt, G. Bogar, L. G. Bolin, E. G. Browning, S. E. Evans, M. M. Howard, J. A. Lau, and J. T. Lennon. 2023. Soil health through farmers’ eyes: Toward a better understanding of how farmers view, value, and manage for healthier soils. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 78:82-92.
Improved soil health (SH) is critical in achieving agricultural resilience and mitigating climate risks. Whether SH management practices are widely used depends greatly on US farmers’ voluntary decision-making. Toward understanding this point, much research has addressed factors that contribute to the adoption (or lack thereof) of SH-promoting practices, but less is known in terms of farmers’ perceptions of SH itself and the corresponding management practices they see as related to achieving SH. To offer introductory insight on this knowledge gap and support better buy-in from farmers toward positive SH outcomes, our research draws upon qualitative interviews with 91 farmers across three key agricultural states in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan). We develop a more detailed understanding of farmers’ views on SH, and why and how they manage for it. Nearly all interviewed farmers were familiar with the concept of SH and most viewed it favorably. A minority of farmers lacked familiarity with the term “SH” yet still managed for it. Skeptics of SH largely cited uncertainties related to over-zealous messaging by proponents of SH or lack of evidence for the return on investment of SH practices. Overall, farmers’ perceptions of SH largely aligned with the scientific community’s understanding of soils being a dynamic system, though farmers most dominantly defined SH by its biological component. Farmers perceived a host of benefits of SH, most often noting benefits to production, followed by improvements in physical aspects of the soil such as erosion control and increased organic matter. Notably, production and sustainability benefits were often cited together, suggesting that SH management is increasingly seen as a “win-win” by farmers. Additionally, we found that many farmers view themselves as active participants in SH outcomes and believe their management choices are indicators of positive SH outcomes, regardless of the practices they employ, including some strategies (such as tillage or tile drainage) that do not align with scientifically documented approaches to improving SH. Our findings show that farmers report engaging in an array of SH management practices that target both biotic and abiotic components of soils, and often use multiple practices in tandem to promote SH on their farms. Achieving better SH in agricultural production in the future will require engaging farmers in SH management by tailoring outreach and communication strategies to align with the perspectives and language farmers themselves use to conceptualize SH.
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