Thinking Differently About Soil Health - And Farming More Profitably

By Dan Schultz, October31, 2022

There’s an old story about a failed revolt. It was an uprising planned for some time. 

On a certain day, the various parts of the human body, including the brain, arms, legs, eyes, feet, hands, lungs, etc., got together to discuss the body's belly and what they thought about its contribution to the group's efforts on behalf of the body.


The body parts were all unhappy and resentful for various reasons, and chose to target their collective anxieties at the belly, in a rather bullying way. The unhappy body parts decided that the belly was not doing enough towards maintaining the body's operations, and accused the belly of spending its time lazily consuming food and allowing other members to do all the work.  "We have decided that we will no longer do what we need to do in order to feed you," they said to the belly, "Because you do nothing to help us, and you are lazy and unproductive." 

And they stopped feeding the belly. The belly soon starved. But to their surprise and terror, each member of the body starved too. The unhappy body parts now realized - too late unfortunately to save themselves and the body - that although the belly seemed to be doing nothing, it had in fact been fulfilling a vital function necessary for the wellbeing of the body and all of its parts. 

In the US, it is estimated that soil on cropland is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished. At this rate of loss, some experts predict that we will be out of topsoil in about 60 years.

Nearly all of our food production depends on the critical function of healthy topsoil. We can only begin to make progress when we stop lying to ourselves and start pursuing new opportunities for restoring soil health and fertility.
As Albert Einstein famously said, "we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
We must venture to think differently about our soils. 

The new way to think about farming in the 21st century is to promote soil health by changing your management practices.

Today, the vast majority of advising we do with farmers, agronomists, and industry leaders is to get them to flip this script. 

95% of us think that we know where our focus should be. We naively focus on yields without considering the complexity of the system we’re farming in.

After all, we have to feed the world, right?

So we tell ourselves that we care about leaving our farms better than we found it. We mouth the words and we continuously remind ourselves that this is the way it has to be to grow cheap food. We continue to apply the same excessive rate of nitrogen fertilizer. We just need to push those yields up a bit more, a few more bushels. We continue to push and move forward with convention to the point that we now lose 2 pounds of topsoil for each pound of corn that is produced in the state of Iowa. The brutal truth is that we need to change. 

Our farms will tell us what they need - all we have to do is learn to listen. 

Listening to your plants and reacting to the signals they are trying to send is the best way to think about managing your fields.

If you are going to improve your soil health over time, you need a way to adapt your management practices to better align your efforts across your entire farm ecosystem. We must identify what is not working. When most of us think of our operation, we unconsciously accept and assume certain conventional characteristics.


We say things like, “this is how it’s done around here,” and “we have to do it this way. We got this.” We apply the same herbicides and fungicides we did last year; we till extensively; we use the same frame of reference year over year, season after season.

Instead, we believe that you need to introduce incremental changes into the way you farm so that you can begin to think differently about the entire system. As you continue to iterate and learn, test different management practices so you can identify where your limiting factors exist today. 

Here at AEA, we like to say don’t guess, test. 

We must learn to pay attention to micronutrients in the soil. Micronutrients are key for plant growth, and pesticides used to kill plants readily and easily chelate them. This means that once you use the pesticide, it can bind with the micronutrient and make it unavailable for the plant. As a result, essential processes necessary for the plant's survival are inhibited. 

Soil health is essential to farm profitability. And we need to start thinking differently about how we manage our soils—not just from a fertility standpoint, but from a microbial standpoint as well. We need to understand that the soil is a living system, and it’s teeming with life. If we manage it properly, we can create an environment that is conducive to plant growth and also supports a healthy population of soil microbes.


When we do that, we’ll start to see a lot of the problems that we’re currently dealing with in agriculture begin to disappear. We’ll see fewer diseases, fewer pests, and healthier plants. And that will result in more profitable farms for years to come.