We have written this book with farmers, farm advisors, students, and gardeners in mind, although we have also found copies of earlier editions on the bookshelves of many of our colleagues. Building Soils for Better Crops is a practical guide to ecological soil management that provides background information as well as details of soil-improving practices. This book is meant to give the reader a holistic appreciation of the importance of soil health and to suggest ecologically sound practices that help to develop and maintain healthy soils.

Used to be anybody could farm. All you needed was a strong back . . . but nowadays you need a good education to understand all the advice you get so you can pick out what’ll do you the least harm

– Vermont saying, mid-19002


Building Soils for Better Crops has evolved over time. The first edition focused exclusively on the management of soil organic matter. If you follow practices that build and maintain good levels of soil organic matter, you will find it easier to grow healthy and high-yielding crops. Plants can withstand droughty conditions better and won’t be as bothered by insects and diseases. By maintaining adequate levels of organic matter in soil, you have less reason to use as much commercial fertilizer, lime, and pesticides as many farmers now purchase. Soil organic matter is that important.

Organic matter management was also the heart of the second edition, but we decided to write a more comprehensive guide that includes other essential aspects of building healthy soils, such as managing soil physical properties and nutrients, as well as a chapter on evaluating soil health (chapter 22). In addition, we updated farmer case studies and added a new one. The case studies describe a number of key practices that enhance the health of the farmers’ soils.

Many chapters were rewritten, expanded, and reorganized for the third edition—some completely. A chapter on physical properties and issues was divided into two (chapters 5 and 6), and chapters were added on the principles of ecological soil management (chapter 8) and on irrigation and drainage (chapter 17). The third edition, while still focusing on farming and soils in the United States, has a broader geographical scope; the book has evolved into a more comprehensive treatise of sustainable soil management for a global audience. We have, however, maintained the use of English units in the book for the convenience of our original target audience, although many readers outside North America—and scientists like us—would perhaps prefer the use of metric units.

A book like this one cannot give exact answers to problems on specific farms. In fact, we are purposely staying away from recipe-type approaches. There are just too many differences from one field to another, one farm to another, and one region to another, to warrant blanket recommendations. To make specific suggestions, it is necessary to know the details of the soil, crop, climate, machinery, human considerations, and other variable factors. Good soil management needs to be adaptive and is better achieved through education and understanding than with simple recommendations.

Over many centuries, people have struggled with the same issues we struggle with today. We quote some of these people in many of the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter in appreciation for those who have come before. Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No. 135, published in 1908, is especially fascinating; it contains an article by three scientists about the importance of soil organic matter that is strikingly modern in many ways. The message of Edward Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly—that reduced tillage and increased use of organic residues are essential to improving soil—is as valid today as in 1943 when it was first published. And let’s not forget the first textbook of soil management, Jethro Tull’s A Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, or an Essay on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation, first published in 1731. Although it discusses now-refuted concepts, like the need for intensive tillage, it contains the blueprints for modern seed drills. The saying is right— what goes around comes around. Sources are cited at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book, although what’s provided is not a comprehensive list of references on the subject.

Many people reviewed individual chapters or the entire manuscript at one stage or another and made very useful suggestions. We would like to thank George Abawi, William Brinton, Andy Clark, Bill Cox, Karl Czymmek, Heather Darby, Addy Elliott, Charles Francis, Tim Griffin, Joel Gruver, Karl Hammer, Jon Hanson, Ellen Harrison, John Havlin, Robert L. Hill, Bruce Hoskins, Bill Jokela, Doug Karlen, Ann Kennedy, Charles Mitchell, Jr., Tom Morris, John Peters, Stu Pettygrove, Marianne Sarrantonio, John Sawyer, Eric Sideman, Gene Stevens, Jeff Strock, and Ray Weil.

We recognize colleagues who provided photos in the figure captions, and we are grateful for their contribution. All other photos are our own or in the public domain. We also acknowledge some of our colleagues— Bob Schindelbeck, George Abawi, David Wolfe, Omololu (John) Idowu, Ray Weil, and Rich Bartlett (deceased) — whose ideas and insights have helped shape our understanding of the subject. And we thank our wives, Amy Demarest and Cindy van Es, for their patience and encouragement during the writing of this book. Any mistakes are, of course, ours alone.

Fred Magdoff

Professor Emeritus

Department of Plant & Soil Science

University of Vermont

Harold van Es

Professor and Chair

Department of Crop & Soil Sciences

Cornell University

June 2009