Soil health and soil management decision-making in the mid-Atlantic.

Final Report for GNE13-060

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,959.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Grant Recipient: Pennsylvania State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Carolyn Sachs
Pennsylvania State University
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Project Information


Soil health has recently emerged as a national interest and an international priority, with the U.N. declaring 2015 as the International Year of Soil. This prioritization recognizes that soil health supports human health and mitigates environmental problems such as climate change. The purpose of this dissertation is to understand how farmers make soil management decisions and in turn what those decisions do to support soil health on their particular farms and more broadly in the environmental hotspot of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The project’s secondary goal is to examine the systemic interlinkages between farmer decision-making and soil health in relation to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Qualitative inquiry guided by Actor-Network Theory (ANT) supported the generation of data to complete this project. Qualitative research design is a valuable and underused approach in the study of farm management practices. Interviews, focus groups and farm walks were complemented by quantitative data from on-site soil sampling and the resulting lab analysis. ANT is an ideal theoretical starting point because it insists on the real influence of non-human actors, such as soil, landscape, wildlife and machinery. Four diverse farms—two organic and two conventional ranging in size from 200 to 15,000 acres—located across the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed, formed the core case studies that inform the findings.

Findings include the identification of a guiding soil management logic at play on each of the four core case farms: Observation, Experimentation, Innovation, and Privilege. These logics signal the actor-networks influencing soil health and capture many of the factors that coalesce to produce a specific soil’s health status. Findings also include interacting influences on the key soil-health affecting management practices of tillage, rotation, and amendments. This full accounting of soil health practices in context provides a novel, and more accurate, platform from which to understand and promote conservation practice ‘adoption.’


Throughout history farmers have revered soil. From Tang dynasty soil-worship to the near-mystical invocations of contemporary biodynamic adherents, soil has been recognized as life giving. History also shows us that farmers abuse soil. From the eroded hills surrounding Athens circa 600BC, to China’s current dustbowl, the soil has been depleted, discarded or otherwise poorly managed. In the U.S. today, “soil is being washed away ten times faster than the Earth can replenish it, and it is happening forty times faster in China and India. Twenty-two thousand square miles of arable land is turning into desert every year and, all told, it appears a quarter of the world’s farmland, two billion acres, is degraded” (Windsor 2011). Lead U.S. soil scientists agree: “The evidence is everywhere that we are skinning the Earth” (Baveye et al. 2011, p. 4).

Soil management has serious and far-reaching consequences for environmental quality. These consequences manifest on the farm, in terms of plant health, fertility, and nutrient runoff, across regions, in terms of erosion and chemical loads, and trans-regionally in terms of fossil fuel use, contributions to climate change, and hypoxic zones (NRC 2010). Soils are also implicated in the economic and social stability of rural families and communities. Soil management practices that foster sustainability (environmental, economic and social) are desirable for farmers and eaters everywhere. But sustainability is not yet the norm; as Baveye and colleagues (2011) implore in the 75th Anniversary Paper for the Soil Science Society of America, “soils are as final a frontier as we will ever get a chance to explore, if we do not succeed soon in managing them more sustainably” (p. 10).

So, it is no surprise that public institutions, such as the National Resource Conservation Service and Land Grant universities, have worked to codify and disseminate soil management ‘best practices,’ especially in regards to erosion control, but also more recently in regards to organic matter content, nutrient cycling and enabling soil ecosystem functioning (NRC 2010). While significant challenges remain in detailed understandings of soils and management strategies, these efforts have waylaid another Dust Bowl crisis- in the U.S. at least. However, regulatory agencies, extension agents and farmers alike recognize that much remains in improving on-farm management and in addressing the fundamental disarticulation of the nutrient cycle.

The codification of best practices is, clearly, not enough; a recent review of 25 years of published research on farmer adoption of best management practices in the US failed to discern the antecedents to adoption (Prokopy et al. 2008). The lead author of this thorough review concludes that the methods employed- survey data and quantitative analysis- were largely at fault here; more nuanced qualitative modes of inquiry are needed to understand the complexity of human behavior in whole farm systems (Prokopy 2011). This conclusion is important for both research and policy concerned with soil health and agricultural influences on it. The conversation here must expand beyond neoliberal economic or environmental considerations and outmoded uni-directional adoption theories to address the holistic interaction of economic, environmental and social considerations on farms. Only in this expanded conversation can we begin to understand how sustainable soil management might be adequately ‘incentivized’ at the farm level to generate benefits that reach well beyond the farm gate.    

This context supports the investigation of the farmer-soil relationship through in-depth, qualitative comparative case studies of farms linked by an important watershed- The Chesapeake Bay’s. The project analyzes and presents the factors and assumptions that influence how farmers make soil management decisions and what those decisions do for soil health. In addition to the in-depth case studies, three important soil health practices are explored: Tillage; Rotation and Cover crops; and nutrient or amendments. These practices are widely regarded as being critical influences on soil health outcomes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (Jokela, 2011; Karlen et al., 2006; Kassam et al., 2009; Magdoff & Weil, 2004; NRCS, 2014; USGS, 2015; Weinhold et al., 2006).

Project Objectives:

There are four objectives to this project:

1) To examine and describe the farmer-soil relationship for each case, which includes:

  1. A holistic description of the farmer soil management decision-making process;
  2. Analysis and description of the physical, biological and chemical properties of the specific farm soil; and
  3. Analysis of the interaction of a & b above.

This objective was completed and reported through four in-depth case studies.

2) To analyze the networked connections between influences typically confined to the boxes of social, economic or environmental forces.

This objective was completed and reported through four in-depth case studies as well as in-depth discussion of three farming practices: tillage, amendments and rotation.

3) To interpret emergent patterns across the discreet cases.

This objective was completed and reported through an in-depth discussion of three farming practices: tillage, amendments and rotation.

4) To present this analysis in appropriate form to farmer-participants, policy makers, researchers and the wider public [post-dissertation].

As originally planned, this objective will be completed post-dissertation after the dissertation defense is passed and the project is edited and approved by the dissertation committee. To be directed to publication and outreach information, the principal investigator can be contacted at [email protected] after September 2015.


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  • Carolyn Sachs


Materials and methods:

This study aims to answer two central research questions:

1) What constitutes the relationship between farmers and their agricultural soils?

2) What are the effects of this relationship in terms of soil health?

These questions are motivated by Actor Network Theory (Latour, 2005), which suggests that the decisions we make are the result of a wide range of other people and things in an interconnected relationship with us. These parts cannot be understood separately; so each case study explores what constitutes the relationship between a farmer and their soil. The parts are described together, holistically, rather than in survey research where the parts are removed from the whole and presented separately. There is not space here to do this theory justice, but it should be noted that at the heart of it, Actor Network Theory is talking about a way of doing social science that is a corrective to the reductionist means most often used in the past; means that have had real consequences for the way we understand society and how individuals act within society.

The specific research methods used to generate the cases are mostly qualitative: in-depth, on-site, repeated interview and farm walk, participatory photography, phone interviews, focus groups and web-based archival research. In addition, soil sampling and testing through the Cornell Soil Health Test was used to quantitatively understand the soil health outcomes on each core farm.

Case selection

The case study approach provides the best method for answering the central research questions across a purposively selective set of four farms. Beginning with these four farms, the following were recruited to join the study: 4 head farmers; 17 related people who influence soil management decision making or have specific expertise on soils in the core farm’s region; 25 farmers working near one of the core farms; and 48 pieces of text material, such as farm web-sites, news items, chemical safety data sheets, published soil data, and soil test results. In total, that is 46 people and 48 pieces of text that form the data pool for the study.

The four farms that form the core of this account were selected using purposive criterion sampling as follows. Case selection was constrained regionally to the Chesapeake Bay watershed (see Figure 1). The geographic focus allows for a deeper understanding of how watershed wide policy, culture, environment and climactic factors relate to farmer soil management decision-making. Cases were also constrained to farms that grow wheat, corn and/or soy and/or those whose livestock operations require these crops as feed. These three crops account for nearly ¾ of all agricultural land use in the U.S. (USDA, 2007). Additionally, only those farms whose operator’s main occupation was farming were included. By using these crops and livestock as a delimitation to case selection, farmer management techniques are more readily relatable and the larger story of the effects of decision-making on agricultural land use in this particular watershed may more easily come to the fore. Diversity within these constraints was explicitly sought to explore the farmer-soil relationship in different farming contexts.

Following an extensive review of the literature regarding soil health in relation to farming techniques and systems, three farm attributes were identified as the most likely to diversely impact soil health: nutrients; tillage; and the farming system. Broadly, these characteristics can be thought of as continuums. Tillage is a continuum from never-tilling, to no-till (or occasionally tilling), to conservation tillage (reduced tillage), to conventional tillage. Nutrient management is a continuum from importing or exporting most nutrients, to producing some feed and fertilizer (manure, compost etc.), to a closed loop nutrient system where all feed and fertilizer is produced and recycled on the farm. The final attribute, farming system, is a continuum from conventional, with tillage, to conventional no-til as a system, to organic non-certified, to organic certified. These three farm attributes informed a rubric designed to ensure case selection with maximum far differentiation (Table 1).

Participant cases

The four cases enrolled in the study were identified and invited to participate based on their diversity of fit to the case attributes outlined in Table 1. The cases are diverse in their farming style, nutrient strategy and tillage but they are connected by their geography in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and their crop-livestock linkages (see Table 2). Of the participating farms, one is certified organic using tillage, one is not certified but uses organic practices and tillage, two are conventional using low or no-tillage. One conventional farm has a nutrient excess, which it exports, while the other imports nutrients. Both of the organic farms are working towards a closed loop nutrient system; one has nearly accomplished this but adds micronutrients, while the other is in the beginning stages and imports hay for winter-feed. The particularities of each farm are presented in the case studies.

Data generation techniques

As suggested by the central research questions, both the farmer and soil related to each farm case are the entry points to each case for data generation. The data that builds each case were generated by snowballing out from each of these entry points to better understand the network of influences in which the farmer and the soil are enmeshed. Data was generated and participants (beyond the initial core case farmers) were enrolled in three rounds as outlined in Table 3.

The data generated through the techniques outlined above resulted in more than 215,000 transcribed words (about 400 pages of text), along with web materials regarding each farm and soil data regarding each farm. Transcripts were analyzed using standard qualitative coding and analysis methods to generate patterns and themes within each case and across cases. Coding in this sense is about more than simply categorizing the data; rather it allows thinking through the data to analyze for patterns that develop into the final written account of the study. In particular, following a wide-open initial coding of a sampling of the data, the overarching soil management ‘logics,’ emerged in each case and where given descriptive labels: 1) Innovation 2) Privilege3) Observation 4) Experimentation.

Coding proceeded under these four monikers to determine the constitutive influences of each case, so that, for instance, a question such as ‘what does an innovation logic mean for soil health?’ could be answered in the full context of that particular case study. This coding clarified how the farmer-soil relationship is assembled and what that assemblage does in terms of soil health and management decision making on each farm. The four farm cases were reviewed by the farmers who participated in the study at each core farm. This ‘member-checking’ is a necessary tool in qualitative research to ensure the reliability of the data and the analysis. Each core farmer was asked to read through the case study of their farm and provide comments, either written or verbal, as to the accuracy of the case report from their viewpoint. This analysis resulted in each of the discreet case studies presented here.


Following the coding of each discreet case study, coding to determine the patterns across cases, and key influences on specific farm practices ensued. This coding was not confined by case, but rather worked across all cases, and relied heavily on focus group conversations to grasp the influences that affect the following farming practices: tillage, amendments, and rotation. The data was mobilized to describe the interacting factors that influence decisions in each of these three key soil-health practice areas. These are also presented here.



Research results and discussion:

The four cases presented here highlight how particular networks, or guiding ‘logics,’ influence soil management decisions, and in turn, soil health outcomes. The purpose to these case presentations is to textually depict the complex networks creating soil health at four intentionally dissimilar farms across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Each network is signaled by a label called a ‘logic.’ Logic is used to denote an overarching system, in which the head farmer is enmeshed. Unlike a traditional network where parts are simply connected, this kind of logic is about all the parts co-creating themselves and the network.  

Like any representation, these logics are imprecise and partial—they cannot give the whole story. Nonetheless, they are useful heuristics for grasping the range of elements—historical, physical, biological, familial, collegial, economic, etc.—that produce or impair soil health on a given parcel of agricultural land in this region. The logics are presented in the following order: Innovation, Privilege, Experimentation, and Observation. The basic farm characteristics for each of these cases is outlined in Table 4, and detailed in the attached case studies themselves and in the Cornell Soil Health Test reports in the appendix to the case studies.

Please review the attached in-depth case study report to understand how soil health is supported or constrained on four different farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

When analyzing the data derived from each case, patterns across the cases emerged regarding key soil health management practices under the categories of tillage; rotations; nutrients and amendments. The influences on these practices are presented in a second report attached here.

There are many interacting influences that support or detract from each of the three main soil health affecting practices of rotation, tillage, amendments and nutrients. These practices are outlined in Table 5. These categories arise from conversations held with farmers, soil conservationists, agricultural educators and other agricultural professionals throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The final column in Table 5 summarizes the general commonalities across groups of these influences. The general categories found to influence soil health management practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are: worldview, farming norms, learning, policy, labor, technology, crops, landscape & soil, manure, and the farming system. These are in no way comprehensive, nor are they exclusive, but they do serve as a shorthand to help understand the many kinds of influences at play in any farmer’s decision to engage, or not, in a soil management practices.

In the attached report on management practice influences, a brief description of each of the influences outlined in the table is given, showing the many additional considerations that interact under each general category. It should become apparent that the general categories outlined in the table are not sufficient to capture the complexity actually present, but again, the general categories are useful starting points to expand a discussion around these management practices. The summaries are organized by management practice and are derived from much lengthier texts that include many direct quotes from study participants.

Research conclusions:

This project makes a novel contribution to the literature on ‘best management practice adoption.’ By using a qualitative case study approach, the nexus of interacting influences at play to support or erode soil health on particular farms is better understood. In terms of its social science contribution, the considerable influence of non-human actors is on full-display, which heads a call to account for, and include, those kinds of influential actors that are too often overlooked. It is important to recognize the role played by the teeming ecology of soil itself, along with climate, wildlife, landscape, and plants. Recognizing these kinds of actors expands worldviews, shifting from a reductionist human-centered approach, to a more systemic, holistic viewpoint. This shift in worldview, as attested to in the findings, is an important soil health promoting factor in itself.

Understanding the specificity of different farming operations is important for policy makers and the general public, as well as for farmers themselves. When reading through the case studies presented here or the report on soil management practices, it is immediately apparent that best management practice ‘adoption’ is not an appropriate means for understanding how farmers make decisions regarding soil management. There is no simple, or even multi-pronged, ‘adoption’ curve. Farmers are enmeshed in a fabric of influences that includes, at a minimum: worldview, farming norms, learning, policy, labor, technology, crops, landscape & soil, manure, and their farming system (organic or conventional). Each farm is particular.

The outcome of such an analysis can only be to re-orient the way agricultural policy makers, outreach professionals and others concerned with the way soil is managed. This reorientation involves moving away from the impulse to reductionism (that is, trying to find and isolate a few factors that determine an outcome) and move towards a more holistic understanding of soil management in its most rich context.

In practice, these findings and the re-orientation they demand, suggests that all those concerned with shifting soil health management practices should seek to involve everyday farmers and social scientists in policy and outreach design processes from the very beginning. Better programs, policies, and outreach will occur by expanding the conversation to really listen to and take account of the actual web of influences that any particular farmer works within. Far from this being idiosyncratic, such a detailed and particular approach is rather the only way forward to support better soil health outcomes in this region, and beyond.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The project analysis has first been drafted as separate case studies for presentation to each core farmer participant and as particular soil management practice decision-making analyses presented to all study participants. Both of these reports are publicly available as attachments here. These draft analyses will directly benefit the farmers at the core of the study by showing the ways that their soil management decision-making is influenced and what those decisions do to their soil’s health. This kind of analysis presentation is at the heart of Actor-Network Theory in that it plainly shows each participant the network that was hidden. In this showing, participants are able to see how they might alter their decision making to create alternative outcomes for the soil and themselves.

The complete final analysis is presented in a dissertation format, supporting the completion of a PhD in Rural Sociology at Penn State University. An electronic (.pdf) version of this dissertation will be publicly available through Penn State’s library. Following dissertation completion, a targeted version of the findings will be presented to extension personal at Penn State and Cornell Universities either in person or through written briefs intended to aid the work they do. In addition, three peer-reviewed publications are also planned relating the findings from the dissertation work. These journal articles will focus on 1) farmer interpretations of soil health; 2) the connection between soil health and human health and 3) soil management practice decision making in context. These are not expected to be completed until 2016.

The research findings will also be made relevant to a wider audience post-dissertation through policy relevant publications (to be determined, but may include policy briefs targeting agricultural committees in NY, MD and PA state legislatures, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s newspaper, the Lancaster Farmer newspaper and the like). The data generated through this research will also be used to craft a non-fiction lay book for post-dissertation completion on “The Social Life of Soil.” This book is an integral part of the project as it is conceived as a means to help put soil health on the national agenda in the same way as water or air quality is currently.

The final analysis will first form the contents of a dissertation for completion o f a PhD in Rural Sociology at Penn State University. Following that dissertation completion, a targeted version of the findings will be presented to extension personal at Penn State and Cornell either in person or through very readable briefs intended to aid the work they do. Currently, three peer-reviewed publications are also planned relating the findings from the dissertation work. These journal articles will focus on 1) farmer interpretations of soil health; 2) the connection between soil health and human health and 3) soil management practice decision-making in context. These are not expected to be completed until 2016.

The research will also be made relevant to a wider audience post-dissertation through policy relevant publications (to be determined, but may include policy briefs targeting agricultural committees in NY, MD and PA state legislatures, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s newspaper, the Lancaster Farmer newspaper and the like). The data generated through this research will also be used to craft a non-fiction lay book for post-dissertation completion on “The Social Life of Soil.” This book is an integral part of the project as it is conceived as a means to help put soil health on the national agenda in the same way as water or air quality is currently. Please see Table 5 for a summary of the linkages between audience, rational and dissemination strategy.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:


Farmer Adoption

Verbal feedback from participants has been positive throughout the study, with many eager to share their concern for how farmers are often not meaningfully included in research or policymaking, which leads to research and policy that seems irrelevant to many. Including farmers in policy and program creation processes from the start is important.

In addition, informal comments on the importance of paying farmers for participating in research and policy making and holding meetings at considerate times came up often. If farmers are to be included in research, program and policy design, payment should be made for their time. When payment is not made for their time, this necessarily skews who can participate; allowing only those with the most financial means (i.e. the most lucrative, and often large-scale farmers) to shape research, programs and policy. This results in research, programs and policies that continue to seem irrelevant to many farmers, because it does not reflect their kind of farm or their farming style or system.  In addition, even if farmers are not being paid for their time, meetings must be scheduled during off-season (winter in this region) or in the evenings. Holding meetings during planting or harvesting sends a signal that farmer participation is not valued. While there seems to be a rift between agricultural researchers, extension, policy makers and the farmer who participated n this study, policy makers, extension personnel and agricultural researchers are in a position to mend this rift with genuine outreach and inclusion.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

The sociology of soil health is an underexplored field and this initial exploratory study will present many new avenues for research that will support soil health and farm sustainability (economic, social and environmental). In particular, it would be interesting to explore in-depth one discrete soil management practice, for instance turning crop residue under, among a larger set of farmers in one region. This suggestion derives from the broad nature of the study reported on here, which, while rich and fruitful, fails to delve deeply into any one particular practice. In addition,  future research in this realm would best be supported by an interdisciplinary team. While sociology and geography should be the leading discipline in such a study, engaging with agricultural, biological and even political scientists to frame such a study would be more efficient from the standpoint of the extensive research time needed to undertake the work presented here.

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.