Soil Health // Jun 23, 2020
Soil: The Food for Our Food
Success in digital farming doesn’t have to be prefaced by generations spent on a farm, but it sure doesn’t hurt. I operate at the confluence of data science and traditional agriculture. As Chief Scientist, I couldn’t be more excited about the tools, analysis, and capabilities that digital ag brings to understanding what goes on in our fields.
My path as a farmer and scientist has only deepened my knowledge of, and interest in, what happens beneath the surface of a field. Just like some engineers might grow up taking apart appliances in their kitchens to better understand them, so have I spent my career drilling down deeper into soil biochemistry and how inputs like nitrogen move through the environment.
My family farm in Ohio has been not only a place of solace, but kickstarted my passion for what happens beneath the surface we walk on.
The First Input
On June 23, 2008, the United States Senate signed a resolution recognizing how important healthy soil is as a national resource, and recognizes soil science as a critical study to maintain that resource. Separate from World Soil Day, this date, coming as crops are emerging from the soil, is a good opportunity to reflect.
The day isn’t yet on its way to being a bank holiday by any stretch, but one worth noting for me, as my family has spent generations in Ohio farming the same land. When you’ve been working the land for that long, you get to form a relationship with your fields, understanding season by season how they change and respond to conditions.
Soil is the first input on a farm. It’s the growing medium, the food for our food, and aside from air might be the thing about agriculture most taken for granted by the general public. As a holiday it makes sense for us at Climate to pause and reflect on something so critical to what we do here.
The key to unlock understanding soil health is being able to manage all of your data in one place. Bringing together new and novel soil measurements and sensors with yield data unearths insights into the relationship between soils and productivity.
Relating Soil Measurements to Productivity
More than directly measuring, managing for improved soil health requires that we understand and relate how soil properties affect crop productivity. Despite digging and tilling and working land - despite how well farmers know their soil - it’s difficult to relate key observable soil properties to soil health.
Soil provides the foundation for important research trials at Climate Research Farms such as this one in South Dakota.
Every seed sowed by a farmer is like a sensor, dependent on the soil it must survive in, and serves as an indicator if anything is amiss. Digital ag is providing the opportunity to measure and monitor the productivity of these plant ‘sensors’ at spatial scales not possible before. Yield maps have, in effect, become a new window into their soils that we have historically lacked.
Climate FieldView™ tools like Yield Analysis and Field Region Reporting enable farmers to find and measure patterns in productivity as they relate to soil properties in ways they were unable to before.
As Yield Analysis allows productivity comparisons across soil types, and Field Region Reporting allows the highlighting of underperforming areas, farmers are equipped with the tools to identify underlying soil health concerns and can make more informed decisions about how to take corrective action.
As every farmer knows, you don’t farm alone: you make relationships with partners who provide you with what you need. Partnerships are also a key part of enabling soil health through digital ag. We’re continually thinking about how to better build out compatibility with soil testing labs, so that farmers can bring their soil test data into FieldView™ and relate patterns of productivity with soil fertility zones.
It’s not just soil health management decisions enabled by better tools and data, either. On the heels of last month’s post on alternative management practices from my colleague Patti Carroll, conservation and sustainability are yet another development in the forefront of how we think about good soil health. Patti says it best, but in essence, conservation-based decisions not only can drive increased return on investment for farmers, but through establishing biodiverse wildlife habitat can drive greater soil, and environment, health.
The Last Word
Ultimately, without healthy soil you don’t get healthy crops. So much goes into the wellness of soil, though, that only a full complement of tools and data can unlock better understanding. Soil is the first thing to drive germination in a seed and the last thing you want to sacrifice when you’re thinking about farm management.
In celebration of National Soil Health Day, let’s all do what we can to respect the ground we walk on.
Brian Lutz is Chief Science Officer at The Climate Corporation. Brian brings expertise and a broad perspective to the agriculture industry, having grown up on a fourth-generation family farm in Ohio. Prior to joining Climate, he spent more than a decade driving agricultural research as a professor at Kent State University. Most recently in his role as Director of Crop Modeling at Climate, Brian set research strategy and priorities for leveraging Climate’s industry leading digital agriculture data to unlock new insights for improving farm productivity. Brian’s principal strength as Chief Scientist is driving science innovation that is focused intently on producing value for farmers.