Soil health is fast becoming one of the hottest trends in the food and farming industries. Federal legislators in the US are jumping on the soil health bandwagon; even consumers are gaining awareness of how dirt makes a difference in everything from nutritional content to water quality.
There are a number of agrifoodtech startups that are staking out their territory in the realm of soil health, like biocarbon producer Cool Planet, microbiome tester Trace Genomics [disclosure: a portfolio company of AFN‘s parent, AgFunder], and bioinformatics startup Biome Markers. The founders of software-focused fund Scaleworks also recently launched a new regenerative ag-focused VC fund called Soilworks.
Most people seem to agree that improving soil health is a worthwhile endeavor. But beyond the feel-good aspects of supporting the movement, one muddy question hangs in the balance: is there a business case for farmers to adopt soil health practices?
“It is by far the most prevalent question people ask when we talk to them about increasing adoption of soil health systems,” Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute (SHI), tells AFN. “Will it be profitable? Increase or reduce my economic risk? Any time a farmer is doing something at a large scale even just a few dollars extra per acre, when multiplied by many, many acres, can add up to real money soon.”
Honeycutt holds a PhD in soil genesis. He also served as deputy chief for science and technology at the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) and spent nearly 25 years with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) as a research soil scientist.
In other words, he’s an expert in all things dirt.
Like nearly every innovation in agrifoodtech, the solution is only as good as the end user’s willingness to adopt it. Even if a farmer wholeheartedly agrees with the principles of soil health improvement, if adopting a new practice or purchasing a new input doesn’t pencil out, she likely won’t pull the trigger.
“A lot of these practices have been around [for a long time] and you have to wonder why people aren’t using them,” Honeycutt says. “Cover crops have been around for a long time so why does only 4% of our cropland in the US have cover crops on it?”
“But if I were a farmer, I can see how […] recommending that I invest another $20 to $25 per acre for planting cover crops may not make sense because I may not feel like I am going to see a return on that investment.”
Making the business case for soil health
To address this critical issue, SHI is partnering with Cargill and the US National Association of Conservation Districts — with funding from Cargill and USDA-NRCS — to work out a comprehensive approach for evaluating the profitability of soil health management systems.
SHI is in the final stages of the two-pronged effort. The first part will see it piloting soil health techniques on 124 research sites throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico. The second involves working with Cargill to identify over 125 farmers who have adopted soil health systems and learning more about their real-life experiences.
Information from the farms will be integrated with findings from nearby experimental sites. The economic data obtained from farms will be treated as the primary source of information and as a reflection of true farmer experience. Information from the experimental sites will be used to assess the repeatability of yield changes associated with soil health systems compared to conventional systems.
SHI is taking an objective approach to evaluating the economic viability of these practices, too.
“If we find that something doesn’t work, we will be the first ones to say so,” says Honeycutt. “We have not gone into any of these projects with a predetermined goal of proving something works. We are trying to determine if something works.”
SHI is in the final stages of reviewing the data that it has collected from the project and is in the process of developing fact sheets to guide farmers.
So far, the findings seem to support a business case for soil health. One of the primary indicators that the study is tracking is soil water holding capacity. By improving soil’s ability to hang on to water, the economic risks associated with drought decrease along with the amount of inputs required.
“One of the things that we’ve found is that when you increase organic matter, you can increase the available water holding capacity. It has allowed us to create equations that allow us to predict the increase in water holding capacity that can be gained by increasing organic matter,” Honeycutt explains.
SHI is working with the USDA and Colorado State University to put that equation into a decision support tool for farmers and their advisers.
Honeycutt sees a significant role for technology to help drive soil health, particularly when it comes to tech that can compare the real-time changing availability of nutrients with the plant’s changing demand for those nutrients. Deeper understanding of the microbiome would also be beneficial to optimizing cover crop prescriptions and achieving the greatest impact.
A big piece of the business case for soil health may lie in the emerging ag carbon credit space, he adds.
“We see a great opportunity there, but we know [carbon credit markets] can take time to set up and are quite complex. We are happy other people are working on it because it allows us to spend more of our time […] quantifying the benefits, the business case, and the right way to measure things.”
Farms are a lot like snowflakes
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of examining the impact of regenerative ag lies in the kaleidoscopic variability factor. Small nuances — like whether a farm has a pond, or whether livestock are present — can make significant differences.
SHI is tackling this aspect head-on through another pilot scheme.
“Variability is the reason we felt we needed to do this study on such a continental scale, so that we encompass different soil types, climates, and so on,” Honeycutt says.
“We are evaluating over 30 different soil health measurements at the 124 research sites. This will allow us to recommend and identify the subset of those measurements that are the most effective for everyone to use.”
Honeycutt is quick to acknowledge that research plots can be a far cry from a real-life working farm. Nevertheless, they can provide valuable insights on the reproducibility of results, like changes in yield between conventional systems and soil health systems.
SHI is seeking funding to support this project. There is not enough investment in soil health, according to Honeycutt, particularly when it comes to getting farmers the information they need to make informed decisions about which practices to adopt.
He’d also like to see investment dollars support mentoring networks where farmers can connect with fellow producers who have adopted soil health practices in their area. One-on-one relationships are likely the best way to increase adoption.
SHI has been engaged in creating such networks, setting them up in Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina last year. In 2020, it planned to expand to California, Mississippi, and Texas, but Covid-19 has limited these activities to webinars for now.
“The most valuable info is when a farmer can hear from another farmer about what they are doing to be successful at adopting these practices,” Honeycutt says. “They can ask them about equipment, seeding rates, when to plant, and when to terminate. We are releasing short farmer-to-farmer videos soon. They are just as effective, if not more effective, than some of our hour-long webinars.”