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How to monitor, assess and set soil health goals on your farm

Summer Soil Health Series
(Watch all 4 Workshops & Register To Win!)

How do you know if your soil is healthy and functioning properly?

Workshop 2 of our WFN Summer Soil Health Series focuses on how to assess and monitor soil health on your farm. Soil health tests are used by farmers to establish a baseline and to monitor improvements over time. As we discussed in workshop 1, healthy soil that is properly functioning provides on-farm ecosystems services that contribute to a farm’s productivity. If soil is not functioning properly, farm ecosystems can become unbalanced and result in resource concerns. These resource concerns include: soil compaction, reduced soil aggregate stability, soil organism habitat loss and depletion of soil organic matter. Many of these resource concerns which indicate a degraded soil health state can be assessed through simple in-field observations. This workshop delves into 12 simple in-field assessments farmers can do to assess soil health and address these resource concerns. Additionally, this workshop also covers how to collect and submit soil samples to test for both soil fertility and soil health. 

In watching this video above, you’ll hear Hannah Hubanks, conservation planner and soil specialist at Oahu RC&D, describe and identify indicators of on-farm soil health. She uses an analogy to compare soil health assessment to that of human health. Explaining that the way farmers assess indicators of soil health are similar to indicators doctors test to assess human health. Marie Fa’atuala, soil conservationist with NRCS, and Jason Hanson, agronomist with NRCS, help link soil health indicators to observed resource concerns. For instance, reduced crop residue breakdown is an indicator of soil health and may result in observed resource concerns related to soil organic matter (SOM) depletion, aggregate stability (AGG) instability and soil habitat loss or degradation (HAB). 

In the video above, Hannah also explains why it is important to test for soil health and not just soil fertility. She also demonstrates how to submitting soil samples to labs as one option for soil health diagnostics and provides an overview of sampling procedure, timeline, costs. She also describes different types of soil health tests and how to use information from these tests to monitor improvements over time.

Our farm host and co-operator of Hua Orchards, Remy Maylott, describes the process and practices they applied to preserve and restore their soil as they cleared and prepped their fields prior to planting their avocado and citrus orchard. This included applying two rounds of cover crop treatments to 20 acres, establishing windbreaks, applying organic fertilizer and amendments, and integrating bees. They also installed nesting boxes to provide habitat for native pueo to further support the farm’s overall ecosystem health.

In the video above, Hannah describes the on-farm ecosystem services provided from the soil with good aggregate stability. She demonstrates how to assess the aggregate stability of your soil using water-stable aggregate tests. Although this video does not demo all 12 of the in-field assessments described in the NRCS In-Field Soil Health Assessment Guide, you can access the full guide by clicking on the pdf below. The 12 assessments include: 

  • Soil cover
  • Residue breakdown
  • Surface crusting 
  • Ponding/infiltration
  • Penetration resistance
  • Water-stable aggregates
  • Soil structure
  • Soil color
  • Plant roots
  • Biological diversity
  • Biopores
Resources