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It’s been said many times before and it’ll be said many times again: we live in an instant gratification world. From fast food to fast information to fast delivery – when we want something, we want it now…and we usually get it.

Many of us have the same wishes for soil health.

What is the exact practice I can do right now that will build my soil health and build my yield and reduce costs? How much will that practice cost me to implement? What will be the net gain to my bottom line? 

We want soils that support productivity and profitability; we want to know exactly how to get there – and we want to know now. 

What if, instead of looking at soils through the lens of what we know about technology, we looked at it through the lens of what we know about human health?

Our Understanding of Soil Has Evolved

When I was getting my agronomy degree in the 1980s, I was taught that soil is nothing more than a medium for holding onto plant roots, and that the main thing we, as agronomists, would be concerned about is the soil solution – the part of the soil where the nutrients are held. 

“We’re going to feed the crop by determining the amount of nutrients needed and apply enough of them to the soil to get the most yield we can,” they taught us. “And, sure, organic matter is great if you can get it. But at the end of the day, it’s not as important as managing the soil solution.”  

We were taught that soils were almost like a factory – inputs go in on one end, crops come out on the other.

At the time, we didn’t know agriculture was on the cusp of a revolution of understanding about the value and complexity of the soil microbiome, the living system present in soil that has so much to say about a particular soil’s productivity and resilience. Since the 1980s, we’ve come to realize that soil is not simply a medium for keeping the plant in place. It’s a living system, with numerous components – all interconnected and impacting each other.

And, in that way, soil is not so different from people.

Human Health is Complex – And So Are Soils

I visited my doctor this past summer for a check-up and here’s a little snapshot of how it went:

  • He looked at me, made some assumptions about my health from his visual inspection, and then verified those assumptions by asking questions.
  • He conducted tests and collected data, measuring my height and weight, my resting heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature.
  • He ordered blood samples, and had them evaluated for all kinds of metrics like cholesterol, blood sugar, and a variety of enzymes as indicators of liver health, etc.  
  • He asked general questions like, “What is your family medical history? How much exercise do you get? How active are you? How are you feeling generally right now?”

He collected all of this information in his notes, and then put it into an online portal with the test results, which I can see and track over time. The process is not unlike the field checks our SHP Field Managers are doing throughout the growing season.

Turns out, I’m a pretty healthy guy. I was only in for a checkup, but if I’d had some kind of presenting symptoms prompting my doctor visit, he probably would have made a diagnosis around potential causes and most likely prescribed one or more interventions – like a change in diet, exercise, rest, or possibly a prescription drug.

In that situation, assuming I trust my doctor, I would have taken the prescriptions and acted accordingly. I would likely not ask the doctor which of the prescriptions is the most important, or what my exact outcomes would be if I implement some or all of his recommendations. I would not ask, “How many more months will I live? How quickly will my symptoms get better? How much will my quality of life improve?”   

We face all sorts of questions like this in human health. Situations where, if we make a change in one area, we’re not totally sure how that will impact another area or our health overall. For example, how does a change in measurement of cholesterol impact how long we’ll live or our quality of life? 

Sure, we have some general idea about these things, but my doctor won’t be able to say, “If you get one more hour of sleep every night or if you reduce your cholesterol by ‘this much,’ you’ll live another 10 years.” If I were to ask those questions, the doctor might hazard an educated guess, but that’s all it would be. More likely, he’d say something like, “Well, I can’t say for sure, but I think you’ll feel better if you do these things. Then, make another appointment in six months and we’ll run the tests again and see how things are.” With all the medical research we have on-hand right now – which is way more understanding and data than we have about soil – we still don’t have the kind of certainty we’d like in many areas.

Understanding our own human health – the complex living organism that is each individual person – isn’t always easy. We all understand that specific answers take time and are sometimes elusive. 

In the same way, when it comes to looking at the living systems that make up our soils, that kind of predictive certainty about how a change in practice (aka following an agronomist’s “prescription”) will impact our yields or bottom line is just as elusive.  

Don’t Dismiss the Progress We’ve Made

I know it’s hard not to wonder how a change in management practices will impact your numbers. But let me ask you this:

Would you keep smoking just because a doctor can’t tell you if stopping will increase your life expectancy by 5 years or 50 years? Of course not!

In that same way, I hope you won’t avoid cover crops or reduced tillage or grazing, simply because an agronomist can’t tell you if yields will go up by 5 bushels or 50 bushels.

Soils are complex – which means we have to allow for complex processes when it comes to understanding how they work. When I look at the arc of my own career in agriculture and the way our understanding of soils has grown, I see tremendous progress – progress we can all be proud of. 

We still have a ways to go, but with all the progress we’ve made, there’s never been a better time to work in agriculture.

John Mesko
John Mesko
John Mesko leads the Soil Health Partnership as the Senior Director, leveraging a strong internal team, a farmer-focused mission, and a growing community of collaboration.