. . . the Garden of Eden, almost literally, lies under our feet almost anywhere on the earth we care to step. We have not begun to tap the actual potentialities of the soil for producing crops.

—E.H. FAULKNER, 1943

Most farmers know that it is important to increase soil health. And by now, you should have some ideas about ways to increase soil health on your farm, but how can you identify the specific problems with your soil, and how can you tell if your soil’s health is actually getting better?

Does your soil . . .

  • allow water to infiltrate easily during a downpour and drain afterward to let air in?
  • provide sufficient water to plants during dry spells?
  • allow crops to fully develop healthy root systems?
  • suppress root diseases and parasitic nematodes?
  • have beneficial organisms like mycorrhizal fungi that promote healthy crops?
  • supply nutrients from organic sources that reduce the need for fertilizer?

First ask yourself why you would do a soil health assessment. The most obvious reason is that it allows you to identify specific constraints, such as P deficiency or surface compaction, and target your management practices. A second reason might be to monitor the health of your soils over time. Is your soil improving after you start planting cover crops, beginning a new rotation, or switching to reduced tillage? While the goal of building soil health is to prevent problems from developing, it also helps to correct previous problems you might have had. A good soil health assessment done over a number of years allows you to see whether you are going in the right direction. Another reason might be to better valuate your soils. If they are in excellent health due to many years of good management, your land should be worth more when sold or rented than fields that have been worn out. After all, a healthy soil produces more and allows for reduced purchased inputs. Being able to effectively appraise soil health may be an additional incentive for farmers to invest in good management and build equity in their land.

We can generally approach soil health assessment at four levels of detail: (1) general field observations; (2) field assessments using qualitative indicators; (3) comprehensive soil health tests; and (4) other targeted soil analyses. We’ll discuss them each in some detail.