Exploring how farmers’ perceptions of soil health affect their management decisions

Progress report for GNC20-312

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2020: $12,710.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2023
Grant Recipients: Michigan State University; Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Sarah Evans
Michigan State University W.K. Kellogg Biological Station
Faculty Advisor:
Tayler Ulbrich
Michigan State University
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Project Information


Soil health is proven to have wide-ranging benefits and is of increasing interest to farmers and agricultural stakeholders, yet there is still relatively low adoption of soil health practices (e.g. cover crops, no-till, crop rotations) on row crop farms in the Midwest. We predict that one reason for limited adoption is that soil health is an abstract idea with long-term returns, and that farmers may lack concrete strategies by which to improve and evaluate soil health. Additional confusion about soil health may come from incongruences between farmer and agricultural advisors’ conceptualizations, or mental models, of soil health. This project – “Exploring how farmers’ perceptions of soil health affect their management decisions” – seeks to describe farmers’ mental models of soil health in order to improve the effectiveness of soil health education and policies. We propose to use survey data previously collected from row crop farmers across the Midwest and case-study interviews with farmers in southwest Michigan to evaluate 1) how row crop farmers in southwest Michigan conceptualize soil health and 2) whether and how differences in their soil health mental models influence their management decisions. We will disseminate and discuss our results in a workshop with a diverse group of agricultural stakeholders, targeting individuals already engaged in the topic of soil health. In the workshop, we will discuss how understanding farmers’ soil health mental models can improve agricultural education, Extension, and policy efforts. For instance, refocusing Extension publications with terminology central to farmers’ soil health mental models could increase farmers’ understanding and, therefore, adoption of soil health practices. Results from the survey, interviews, and workshop will be published in a peer-reviewed publication, Extension Newsletter, and trade publications that are accessible to farmers, academics, and agricultural advisors.

Project Objectives:

The three learning outcomes for this project include: 1) increase the academic community’s knowledge of how farmers’ soil health mental models inform their management decisions, 2) increase awareness and knowledge of farmer mental models and resources for agricultural advisors, and 3) simplify the complicated ‘soil health’ concept for farmers in the eastern Midwest corn belt. This project also has two primary action outcomes: 1) agricultural advisors will improve their practices by incorporating farmer soil health mental models into their training and outreach activities and 2) we will help enhance networks between agricultural stakeholders in southwest Michigan.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Sandy Marquart-Pyatt (Researcher)
  • Dr. Julie Doll (Educator)
  • Christina Curell (Educator)


Materials and methods:

We used mixed-approach methods with surveys, workbooks, and phone surveys to evaluate how Michigan farmers think about and use soil health practices. To stay in accordance with COVID regulations, we shifted our originally planned in-person interviews to phone interviews.

Surveys were sent to >1,000 Michigan farmers as part of Michigan State University’s (MSU) Farmer Panel Survey. From this group of participants, we selected 20 farmers for follow-up interviews. We selected 10 farmers that have previously used cover crops and 10 farmers that do not use cover crops to increase the variation in our responses and understanding about soil health.

We used a hands-on workbook to help farmers illustrate their own soil health mental models, including what factors they think most affect soil health. The workbooks were completed by the farmer before the interview, mailed back to the researchers, copied, and returned to the farmers to guide the 1-hour phone interview. During the interview, we discussed how they filled out the soil health workbook and gleaned information about what terms farmers most associate with “crop productivity” and “soil health”. The interview and workbook responses will help us gain a deeper understanding about how farmers conceptualize soil health, as well as what challenges prevent them from adopting soil health practices. This information will be used in a workshop with agricultural advisors to discuss tools for promoting soil health practices.

On June 29 2022, we hosted a workshop with 30 agricultural advisors at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

The “Diggin’ Into Soil Health” workshop, held on June 29th, 2022 at the Michigan State University W.K. Kellogg Biological Station included 33 agricultural advisors, agricultural researchers, and Michigan farmers. Participants represented many organizations, including USDA Farm Service Agency, Soil Water Conservation Districts, Michigan Agricultural Advancement, Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Environmental Council, and independent crop consultants. There were four main activities during the workshop: 1) a mental modelling activity to help participants consider how their unique experiences and knowledge inform their understanding of soil health; 2) a research presentation sharing data from surveys and interviews with Michigan farmers about their perceptions of soil health; 3) a farmer panel to better understand producer needs for soil health programing and monitoring; and 4) a group discussion to identify gaps, opportunities, and next steps for soil health programming and action.  A summary report of the day's findings was circulated to all meeting participants. A survey at the end of the workshop revealed that our programming was successful, and that we nearly all participants felt they learned more about their own perceptions of soil health (85%) and also about farmers' understandings of soil health (95%). Every participants said that they would be interested in attending similar events in the future. 

To further help a subset of farmers understand the soil health of their fields, we collaborated with the Sprunger Lab. Twelve of the 20 farmers that participated in the interviews sent soil samples to the lab for soil health analyses. Farmers expressed interest and curiosity in the results, but also shared that they wished they could have more informative sampling, for instance by sampling areas that they know are productive vs. more challenging. To address these concerns, this Spring (2023), we will be working with these farmers to provide additional soil health tests of their fields, with a specific focus on sampling areas they view as more or less healthy. The results from these studies will be used to guide a round table conversation with MSU Extension specialists - focused on identifying management recommendations & solutions for the farmers' soil health reports.


Research results and discussion:

With survey data from 479 Michigan Farmers, we learned that >45% of Michigan farmers are using cover crops, no-till, and conservation tillage on at least some fields on their operation. Winter cover crops had the lowest adoption, with 46% of farmers not using the practice. Even though adoption of some soil health practices is low, we found that over 90% of Michigan farmers have confidence that healthy soils can increase yields and drought resilience. Importantly, most (81%) of farmers want to learn more about how to improve soil health, but many are unsure if their practices qualify as a soil health management plan. This suggests that Michigan farmers believe in the benefits of soil health but are seeking more information and may be unsure about what practices improve soil health the most.

Still, the interview data revealed that there are many complex factors that farmers consider when managing cash crop productivity. When asked which terms most affect crop productivity, soil health was only mentioned by 3 of 20 farmers. They did, however, mention terms associated with soil health, including fertility, soil type, and compaction.

When asked what terms impact soil health, organic matter was mentioned by 80% of the farmers interviewed. Compaction (70%), drainage (45%), tillage (75%), cover crops (40%), and microbes (40%) were also frequently mentioned. So, in accordance with previous studies, we show that Michigan farmers are knowledgeable about soil health and that other barriers are limiting adoption of soil health practices. We plan to delve into these limitations in interview analyses, as well as with the workshop with agricultural advisors. In particular, we will highlight potential gaps that contribute to miscommunication among farmers and advisors.


Conversations during the "Diggin into Soil Health" workshop led to several key recommendations that could help farmers better manage for soil health, including suggestions for how to improve soil health tests and their translation to management, engagement and research, and policy and programming efforts. The detailed recommendations Follow:

Recommended changes for soil health tests & improved translation to management

  • Couple quantitative soil health assessments with agronomic and nutrient tests that farmers already receive. Farmers are familiar with soil nutrient test results, and would like to know how other indicators of soil health (e.g. biological soil health) relate.
  • Link soil health tests to farmers’ perceptions and experiences of soil health on their fields to better inform management decisions. For example, comparing the soil health of high and low producing fields, rather than “one-off” tests from different sites on their operation.
  • Provide a diagram that describes each soil property and indicator of soil health, with guided recommendations summarized by soil type of how they could be improved with targeted management. On its own, soil health was considered too broad to be useful for guiding specific management practices.

Recommended opportunities for engagement & research to aid in farmers’ management of soil health

  • Provide farmers with one-on-one advising and on-the-ground help to evaluate soil health and make guided, field-specific recommendations.
  • Offer farmer-to-farmer exchanges to discuss soil health management efforts. Farmers want to hear from their peers who have successfully implemented a practice before seeking input from agencies or advisors.
  • Engage with advisors prescribing crop fertility plans so they better understand the role soil health plays in crop health and production and how synthetic fertilizers interact with soil health.

Recommended opportunities to improve policy & programs for soil health

  • Inform policymakers on the challenges to evaluating and managing soil health for quantified outcomes to better allocate state funds.
  • Leverage Michigan’s Soil Health Task Force to elevate the importance of soil health state-wide.
  • Allocate additional funds to conservation and agricultural agencies to:
    • Increase capacity for one-on-one farmer meetings and advice (field days alone are not enough for many farmers to shift management practices).
    • Provide staff with more on-farm experiences, improved trainings, and in-service activities to help build farmer trust and improve recommendations.
    • Increase staff benefits and compensation to reduce turnover, which can hamper building trusting relationships with farmers.
    • Invest in farmers’ labor needs to implement time-sensitive soil health practices (for example, cover crops).



Participation Summary
20 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Other educational activities: “Diggin’ Into Soil Health” workshop, held on June 29th, 2022 at the Michigan State University W.K. Kellogg Biological Station included 33 agricultural advisors, agricultural researchers, and Michigan farmers. Participants represented many organizations, including USDA Farm Service Agency, Soil Water Conservation Districts, Michigan Agricultural Advancement, Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Environmental Council, and independent crop consultants.

Participation Summary:

20 Farmers participated
20 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:
  • Webinar for the Soil Health Nexus – June 2020

I presented a webinar for a diverse group of agricultural participants with the Soil Health Nexus Digital Café. I shared preliminary results, as well as upcoming plans for the project.

  • Fact sheet with preliminary results – January 2022

We circulated a 2-page factsheet with preliminary results from the interview and survey data to >1,000 farmers in Michiagn with MSU’s Farmer Panel Survey.

  • Workshop with agricultural advisors – June 2022

We will host a workshop for 30 agricultural advisors from diverse sectors (Extension, Government, Environmental NGOs, SWCD, Consultants, Agribusiness) at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. We will also pay five farmers to participate in a farmer panel about their experiences with soil health, particularly what they think could be improved with their advisor relationships. Overall, the three main goals of the workshop are to: 1) disseminate results from my study on Michigan farmers’ perceptions of soil health, 2) discuss differences in soil health perceptions among agricultural advisors (through hands-on activities), 3) develop “tips for talking” worksheet to standardize soil health jargon among agricultural advisors, in hopes to improve advisor-farmer communication.

  • Workshop summary report – Aug 2022

Conversations during the workshop led to several key recommendations that could help farmers better manage for soil health, including suggestions for how to improve soil health tests and their translation to management, engagement and research, and policy and programming efforts. We summarized these in a white page report and circulated them to workshop participants.

  • Presentation at Long-Term Ecological Research program annual meeting - Sept 2022

Presented study outcomes and challenges/opportunities co-producing research with farmers at a workshop/focus group during the annual LTER meeting in Pacific Grove, CA.

  • Dissertation presentation - December 2023

Results from the survey, interviews, and workshop were presented in a presentation for approximately 60 individuals, largely academics.



Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Healthy soil can increase a farm’s resilience and, in turn, economic stability during periods of stress. Previous work suggests that social connections are one barrier that limits farmers’ adoption of soil health practices. Without a network of advisors and farmers that have successfully used the practices, they lack local tips and confidence in the practice. Therefore, we hope that our workshop will give agricultural advisors an opportunity to network and co-create a tool to improve their farmer outreach. For instance, we can discuss how farmers can start to consider how soil health affects the economic benefits of crop resilience, rather than focusing on the sole metric of yield.

By learning the terms that farmers use to define soil health, we can start to develop better outreach materials that will reach them where they are. This will help agricultural advisors and researchers develop materials with higher success at reaching farmers, with the long-term goal of increasing the adoption of soil health practices. Healthy soils have many short- and long-term environmental benefits, including improved water quality, carbon sequestration, and enhanced biodiversity.

First, we interviewed 20 farmers about their views on soil health, given them insights to the research being conducted at MSU, and made the farmers feel like their insights on soil health are valuable for scientists. Too often scientists pursue research agendas without engaging with the communities it will affect. In the interviews, we asked farmers what questions they have about soil health, and these questions will be shared with MSU scientists and Extension.

Second, we networked with other researchers at MSU (including sociologists and philosophers) that are interested in using this research to further understand the soil health movement.

Lastly, in June, we will host a workshop with 25 agricultural advisors and 5 farmers, with the main goal of increasing trust among farmers and their advisors and, in turn, the adoption of soil health practices. Improving the relationship between agricultural advisors and farmers can help increase the adoption of soil health practices which has many long-term benefits for rural communities, including improved water quality and enhanced biodiversity.

Knowledge Gained:

The graduate student gained many skills in engaging and networking with farmers and agricultural advisors. She learned how to create a workbook and interview guide, and develop relationships with farmers involved in the project. These interpersonal skills are critical to building trust between researchers and farmers. She is also gaining valuable skills for analyzing and presenting qualitative data.


Though the data are still in preliminary stages, we are excited to see how many farmers are confident in and interested in soil health. In particular, it was interesting to learn that most farmers believe healthy soils can increase crop yields and resilience, and some are curious about the mechanisms that drive these dynamics. From the interviews, we were surprised to learn that most farmers were interested in and excited about cover crops, despite relatively low adoption. The farmers discussed other barriers, including age, equipment, short seasons, and access to funding that prevented them from using cover crops. From the interviews it was also clear that most farmers use physical (crop yield, soil compaction, soil type) and chemical characteristics (NPK fertility tests) to identify ‘healthy’ soils from ‘unhealthy’ soils. We feel that more work is needed to help farmers learn how to evaluate soil health on their farm, for instance by considering crop resilience, not only yield.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.