If soils are so important, why aren’t we falling over ourselves to improve them? My guess is that, generally, it’s not ignorance or lack of concern. More likely it’s because the reality of farming is complex, and many useful tools are lacking.
In Part 2 of my soils series, I’ll take a quick overview of some of the barriers standing in the way of taking soil health action before going on, in Part 3, to look at the innovation and opportunities in overcoming these hurdles.
Risk Appetite and Farming Economics.
Possibly the biggest barrier is that farming is, by and large, a low margin business. Not only low margin, but also often highly leveraged, with farmers borrowing to buy inputs or see the business through a lean patch.
So it’s understandable that many simply don’t have the risk appetite to try new things, or can’t afford the investment in equipment to work the soil more sympathetically… especially when there is often a temporary yield reduction as the soil re-generates.
Adding to this, most farm lenders fail to focus on future soil health when valuing farmland or a farm business. Loans decisions typically based on factors such as real estate value and expectations of future crop pricing. Rarely would a lender consider the impact that soil treatment, for good or ill, will have on the future productivity of the farm.
A further complication is that, in the UK at least, a lot of farming is done under contract arrangements. In this scenario the landowner and operator are different entities, with different priorities. The contract farmer may have no ongoing responsibility to the land and may be unable to influence past or future practices; why invest in soil-friendly practices one year and bear short-term pain only to allow someone else to benefit from – or ruin – the long-term gain?
Business models are emerging in finance to more fully evaluate the value of soils (see Part 3 about Capital and Investment), but for many – perhaps most – farmers ones, the realities of their business environment make it difficult to prioritise soil health.
Regulatory influences and incentives
A second major type of barrier are regulatory hurdles, be they from government or certification bodies.
Many farmers are heavily dependent on crop insurance to see them through bad years, yet payouts from the US Federal crop insurance programme can be denied if cover crops are used to protect fields for longer than the Risk Management Agency (RMA) framework allows. That framework doesn’t allow discretion for a farmer to keep her soils protected at critical times of the year if she deems it necessary. There were amendments in the 2018 Farm Bill, but it’s fair to say that in the RMA framework, good soil health practices are deterred by being treated as niche conservation preferences rather than good farm management.
It’s also an ironic quirk, that the rules of organic certification programmes can also work against soil health. As we saw previously, tillage has a major negative impact on soil health, but no till systems often rely on herbicides, such as glyphosate, to terminate cover crops allowing the cash crop to grow through. By preventing the use of these herbicides, the organic regulations effectively prevent no-till or minimum-till practices and the benefits these bring to the soil.
Despite these challenges, soil health seems to be finally gaining recognition in main stream agriculture, which presents all sorts of opportunities.
This was perhaps exemplified when the UK the former Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, set out that he envisaged farmers in a post-Brexit world would be incentivised by receiving “public money for public goods”, with soil health identified as one of the public goods on the cards.
I’m going to ignore the “are soils a public good” debate to focus on a more relevant question here. If a State wanted to remunerate farmers for good soil stewardship, how will they measure soil health, or improvements therein? Until the recently, the tools and techniques to assess soils have remained static for decades, and are extremely labour intensive. Moreover there is no universal yard stick of “good soil” to aim for or measure against. An associated question is, if room for improvement is identified, how does a farmer know what to do? Yet again, one size does not fit all.
All of which tees us up nicely to look at how new technologies and business models are developing to tackle the challenges and opportunities in soil health.
Lets dig into these in Part 3: