Soil Health Research Vision

We believe that strategic soil health research is essential to increasing farmer and rancher productivity and profitability. We support research that provides a better understanding of what soil health is, how it is measured and how to manage and optimize the sustainable delivery of the ecosystem services that soils provide.

Soil Health Challenge Area Background

Soil health has significant potential to address challenges faced by farmers and ranchers as they combat the effects of erosion of topsoil and loss of soil organic matter. Sustaining and improving soil health can make the land more resilient to future challenges including weather conditions like extreme rainfall, temperature fluctuations and drought. These benefits have led to increased adoption of practices that improve soil health among farming and ranching communities, soil managers, scientists, agricultural Extension specialists and other groups that work with soil.
We support research that provides a better understanding of what soil health is, how it is measured and how to manage and optimize the sustainable delivery of the ecosystem services that soils provide. Soil health has been identified as one of FFAR’s key strategic scientific priorities. By creating the Soil Health Challenge Area, we recognize that soil science research and technology transfer needs better coordination, evaluation and implementation to advance soil conservation and management throughout the U.S.. Collectively, our soil health efforts are designed to increase public-and private-sector interest in and advance the scientific understanding of soil resources and to transfer this knowledge to land managers, farmers and ranchers to advance stewardship of these important resources.
We recognize there are several critical challenges and key scientific priority areas through which we can partner with stakeholders to become change agents focused on advancing soil health. Since 2016, our Soil Health Challenge Area has invested over $30 million in soil health projects designed to meet the goals articulated by our vision statement: Increasing soil health by building knowledge, fueling innovation and enabling adoption of innovative practices. We are uniquely positioned to exist in a pre-competitive space and to work with a wide range of stakeholders to address these soil health challenges and opportunities through public/private partnerships. This can be done by funding projects that foster innovation and lead to positive changes in soil health. We also recognize that it is important to identify areas where we can leverage resources to support transformative and innovative research with a targeted outcome of creating healthy soils.

Major Factors Impacting Challenge Area

Historically, the terms “soil health” and “soil quality” have identified physical, chemical and biological properties and processes that contribute to soil function. Soil health is the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. Soil quality is defined as the characteristics of soil properties including both dynamic and inherent.
While each of those components has a long history of research, the science of soil health requires combining these components to more efficiently increase productivity. Stakeholders from academia and industry, as well as local, state and federal government personnel, land managers and farmers want more accurate, standardized and cost-effective in-field soil health measurements and improved methods for interpretation. Field-ready soil health assessment strategies remain in their infancy, with many needing further development and very few having been implemented. This limits the ability of agricultural decision-makers to formulate timely responses supporting healthy soil management practices. There is a strong need for assessment tools that support sustainable land management practices, as well as a need for more applied research, data acquisition, storage and interpretation. Additionally, soil health can be improved by better-defined management strategies that foster collaboration among stakeholders and garner broader support for sustainable land management practices. To facilitate adoption of more responsive soil health practices, we continue to support bold regional and national efforts to quantify soil health metrics utilizing biological, physical, chemical and computation sciences. New and innovative simulation modeling, remote sensing and soil health monitoring techniques are also needed to improve our predictive understanding of concepts that enable us to become better stewards of our living, dynamic and fragile soils.

Program Priorities


FFAR continues its commitment to our mission of audacious science that provides every person access to affordable, nutritious food grown on thriving farms. It is inherent in that mission that we address the challenges faced by farmers and ranchers and equip them to be more resilient in the face of uncertainty and variability in our environment and food system.

Due to climate change, farmers are likely to face higher temperatures, greater frequency and duration of droughts and shifts in frequency and intensity of precipitation, all of which will present challenges to agricultural productivity. According to the Fourth National U.S. Climate Assessment, extreme precipitation events are expected to become more frequent across the country as a whole and three to five times more frequent across large areas of the West, Midwest and Northeast. In conjunction with higher temperatures and drier days, the concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are anticipated to increase in the atmosphere, resulting in increased stimulation of weed growth and new insect pests and pathogens pressures. Although yields have improved in some regions and sectors according to the USDA Midwest, Northeast and Northern Forests Climate Hubs, “the overall impacts of climate change are generally expected to be negative.”

To that end, we are making resilience and adaptive management strategies a key component of our funding strategy. Improving soil health is critical for enhancing ecosystem functions like water infiltration, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling, pest suppression, soil aggregate stability, soil organic matter sequestration, soil organism habitats, etc., all of which enable agricultural resilience to climate change. Additionally, FFAR recognizes that “agricultural producers continuously adjust to changing conditions” but there is a need for individual farmers and ranchers and their communities to have access to greater support to be more adaptive as they face the need to respond to more potential weather events, variability in climate and changes in climate trends overtime.

Site-Specific Decision Making

Inherent variation in soil resources, differences in long-term climate and short-term weather patterns and market availability and access across the nation illustrate the need for science-based recommendations that allow farmers and ranchers to make site-specific management decisions. These site-specific recommendations will allow farmers and ranchers to enhance soil function to support sustainable intensification of farming systems to ensure food security and maintain or improve overall ecosystem function (i.e., improved processes like the water cycle, nutrient cycle and natural regulation of pests and diseases).

To support science-based site-specific decisions, FFAR is committed to expanding data collection, storage, user-friendly access and retrieval. Readily available data is integral for developing more accurate assessment and predictive models of various soil health conditions. We recognize that soil health and its management need to balance “the production of a healthy and profitable crop with environmental protection and improvement.”

Achieving this balance is not easy because of spatial and temporal soil heterogeneity as well as the complexity of interactions among soil biological, chemical and physical properties and processes. While some underlying principles of soil health are well understood, a key research gap exists in the ability to more effectively interpret how management decisions made by farmers and ranchers impact soil health in a local and site-specific context. However, given the scale of data requirements for rigorous and meaningful analysis, these efforts will be highly dependent upon collaborative public-private partnerships. Continued communication between stakeholders will ensure that farmers and decision-makers have access to all the essential data and effective data management practices. FFAR has invested in multiple projects that are addressing the ability to provide more rigorous analysis.


FFAR has identified and prioritized an emerging need that greater emphasis be given to social issues. For example, we anticipate an enhanced exploration of social justice not only between rural and urban perspectives but also among farmers and between farmers and farm workers. FFAR recognizes general understanding of all these social issues is inadequate and must be added as another dimension of ecosystem services (i.e., human to human ecosystems). This includes an increased focus on determinants of farmer wellbeing such as: social capital, self-efficacy, social identity, material wellbeing and health itself, all of which are driving factors in the adoption of practices, as well as productivity and resiliency of U.S. farmers and ranchers. FFAR recognizes that well-being is essential to farmer productivity and that is a cornerstone of our mission.

Novel Pathways to Adoption

As we continue to support the identification of research gaps and innovations in technology and management, FFAR recognizes that another integral component to an effective and impactful Soil Health Challenge Area is exploring the barriers to adoption and scale of practices, tools and innovations that improve soil health. Improved strategies for advancing adoption of soil health management strategies are essential in sustaining enduring and impactful change across the agricultural landscape. FFAR’s Soil Health Challenge Area is a holistic program designed to explore all barriers to adoption of improved soil health practices including site-specific scale (1 to 10,000 ha), availability of new tools and techniques and a better understanding of science-based innovations that are essential for improving and sustaining biological, chemical and physical attributes of soil health. Currently, business models between landowners, farmers and agricultural retailers do not adequately encourage soil health management. Globally, the past decade has shown increased interactions among farmers, ranchers, commodity group, large-scale businesses and grassroots organizations through a focus on soil health. Those endeavors include experimenting with new resource-efficient production methods, developing better soil health assessment protocols and increasing financial support for providing ecosystem services as well as commodity yield. However, FFAR recognizes that change does not come only from these scientific and technological innovations –systemic change is intimately linked to engaging a wide range of stakeholders including farmers, agri-suppliers, food processors, consumers, farm finance, policy makers and domain experts. FFAR is interested in exploring the spaces that can encourage innovation in strategies to encourage adoption of these scientific and technological advances as well as strategies to engage the wide range of stakeholders to identify innovation, not just in science and technology, but also in how we engage with farmers and ranchers to adopt these practices.

Diversity & Inclusion

We “believe that by working together, our vibrant research community of nonprofits, foundations, governments, individual researchers and producers, colleges and universities and companies can support and implement the science we need to meet our common goal: to grow enough food, in an economically, environmentally and sustainable way, to nourish the growing U.S. and global population that are food insecure. Part of our role in this collaborative effort is to convene individuals and groups who can pool creative ideas, expertise and resources so that we can make a difference, together.” We recognize that in creating these collaborations and this vibrant community, we must be intentional in our efforts to support diversity and inclusion. FFAR is continually seeking opportunities to expand our community and continue our commitment to inclusion.

Amplifying the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The Soil Health Challenge Area supports UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 global goals to enhance peace and prosperity, eradicate poverty and protect the planet. As part of the Soil Health Challenge Area, we spur innovation and partnerships to support resilient food production systems and thriving farms. Our research grants advance scientific knowledge, support farmers and improve soil health, supporting SDG 2, Zero Hunger; SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; SDG 13, Climate Action and SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals.

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