Some soils are exceptionally good for growing crops, and others are inherently unsuitable; most are in between. Many soils also have limitations, such as low organic matter content, texture extremes (coarse sand or heavy clay), poor drainage, or layers that restrict root growth. Iowa’s loess-derived prairie soils are naturally blessed with a combination of silt loam texture and high organic matter content. By every standard for assessing soil health, these soils—in their virgin state—would rate very high.

The way we care for, or nurture, a soil modifies its inherent nature. A good soil can be abused through years of poor management and turn into one with poor health, although it generally takes a lot of mistreatment to reach that point. On the other hand, an innately challenging soil may be very “unforgiving” of poor management and quickly become even worse. For example, a heavy clay loam soil can be easily compacted and turn into a dense mass. Both naturally good and poor soils can be productive if they are managed well. However, they will probably never reach parity, because some limitations simply cannot be completely overcome. The key idea is the same that we wish for our children—we want our soils to reach their fullest potential.