Soil Health

The integrative concept of soil health highlights soil as an important part of agroecosystems. The Natural Resources Conservation Service defines soil health as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Soil health focuses on dynamic properties of soil rather than its inherent characteristics. There are many characteristics that comprise soil health as a living ecosystem, including:

  • High plant, animal, and microbial diversity in the soil
  • Non-compacted soil structure that allows for proper root growth and water infiltration and retention
  • The ability of the soil to be resilient to environmental stresses, like drought
  • Levels of organic matter that supply appropriate nutrients to the plants at the correct time
  • The building of soil organic matter and soil quality over time for long term sustainability
  • Low levels of disease, weed, and pest pressure

Many agricultural practices have been shown through scientific research and farmer observations to enhance soil health. These practices include using crop rotation diversification, cover crops, no or minimal tillage, polyculture, compost, and insectary strips. Adopting such practices can enable farmers to enhance agrobiodiversity and associated ecosystem services that are important for farm profitability and sustainability, such as reducing the need for chemical inputs, sequestering carbon, and retaining nutrients. Simultaneously, feedbacks of these practices to soil health over time may contribute to production improvements such as better crop quality, higher nutrition value, improved yields, and stable yields during times of environmental stress.

Promoting Soil Health Innovations

Promoting Soil Health Innovations

What policy and market barriers are stopping farmers from building healthy soils?

Testing soil in a monocultural strawberry field.
Testing soil in a monocultural strawberry field.

Farmers can adopt an array of healthy soils practices, such as cover cropping, composting, no-till, or rotating crops, that lead to carbon storage in soil, higher/more durable crop yields, better farmer livelihoods, and increased crop quality and nutrition. However, farmers often do not adopt these beneficial methods because of multiple, reinforcing market, knowledge, agronomic, and policy barriers. We are studying the barriers, motivations, and enabling conditions that affect the ability of California farmers to use healthy soils practices. We are currently surveying field staff in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, UC Cooperative Extension, and Resource Conservation Districts across California. We will also interview a sample of farmers in the leafy greens, almonds, and strawberry sectors. (2017-2019)

Contact: Alastair Iles (

Read the project summary here.

UC Berkeley Team Members:

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration

Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration in US Croplands: A Policy Analysis

May 2016
Léopold Biardeau, Rebecca Crebbin-Coates, Ritt Keerati, Sara Litke, and Hortencia Rodríguez

Increasing attention is being paid to the emissions reduction and carbon capture (sequestration) possibilities in soils. While government incentives have long existed to ensure that soils are protected to ensure agricultural productivity and air and water quality, new attention to climate change demands policy solutions that reflect the increased importance — and potential — of soil health.

A Goldman School of Public Policy Independent Policy Analysis team worked with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Berkeley Food Institute in spring 2016 to identify current challenges and opportunities in cropland soil health, with a particular focus on soil carbon sequestration. Policy options to increase uptake of NRCS soil health programs in California and Iowa were analyzed, including: adapting existing NRCS technical and financial assistance programs; promoting end-market demand for crops grown through sustainable practices; increasing public-private partnerships; allowing farmers to participate in cap-and-trade; and positioning NRCS as a carbon broker for farmers. Recommendations reflect geographic diversity, crop diversity, and current challenges to soil and farmer economic security, as well as political feasibility. Final results were shared with NRCS state and national staff. 

Download the executive summary here and the full report here.

Farmer Adoption of Soil Health Practices

Farmer Adoption of Soil Health Practices

Factors Influencing Farmer Adoption of Soil Health Practices in the United States: A Narrative Review

February 2016
Liz Carlisle

Soil health practices – such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and conservation tillage – provide synergistic environmental and economic benefits, both on and beyond the farms that utilize them. Given these benefits, researchers are puzzled by the persistent adoption gap for these practices. This narrative review synthesizes the insights of the soil health practices adoption literature, with a focus on US commodity agriculture. While farms, farmers, and farm communities are too heterogeneous to represent with a single model, this review finds five emergent themes: (1) differences in perspective along the adoption continuum, (2) interaction among soil health practices, (3) qualitatively different pathways to incremental and transformative change, (4) non-economic farmer motives, and (5) the key role of larger farm and food system context. This study finds rational actor models inadequate to explain farmer decision-making, suggesting that researchers would do well to utilize interpretive frames that elucidate interactions among groups of people and take account of multiple forms of capital. Reviewing recommendations for increasing the adoption of soil health practices, this study finds that a complementary approach—combining education, research, policy, measures to overcome equipment barriers, and efforts to address farm and food system context—holds the most promise.

Download the full report here.

Economics of Soil Health

Economics of Soil Health

The Economics of Soil Health: Current Knowledge, Open Questions, and Policy Implication

June 2015
Andrew Stevens

Soil health plays an important role in agricultural productivity, environmental resiliency, and ecosystem sustainability. However, this hard-to-quantify holistic concept has proven difficult to incorporate into existing economic and policy frameworks. This report summarizes existing knowledge about the economics of soil health, suggests a methodology for studying the economics of soil health, identifies areas with a need for further research, and discusses current and potential policies that address the economics of soil health. Important components of optimal soil health management include search costs for information, private vs. public benefits, land ownership, carbon policy, and the natural dynamics of soil health characteristics. A case study (Berazneva et al., 2014) is highlighted as an application of an economic framework to soil health in Kenya, suggesting the need for similar studies focused on American agricultural systems. The framework developed in this report suggests that soil health policies focus on increasing access to information and internalizing the positive externalities of healthy soils. However, the magnitude of how far the status quo is from an economic optimum is unclear.

Read the full report here.