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
Major Factors Impacting Challenge Area
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.
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 US 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.