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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: decision support system, focus group, on-farm/ranch research
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, social capital, social networks, social psychological indicators, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    The purpose of this project is to understand how farmers make soil management decisions and in turn what those decisions do to support or constrain agricultural and environmental sustainability on their particular farms and more broadly in the mid-Atlantic region. By examining how farmers make soil management decisions in context, this project will articulate a novel and full accounting of constraints that limit the adoption and practicability of sustainable farming in the environmental hotspot of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The project’s overarching goal is to examine the systemic interlinkages between farmer decision making and soil health in relation to economic, social and environmental sustainability. 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.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1) To examine and describe the farmer-soil relationship for each case, which includes:
    a. a holistic description of the farmer soil management decision-making process;
    b. analysis and description of the physical, biological and chemical properties of the specific farm soil; and
    c. analysis of the interaction of a & b above.
    2) To analyze the networked connections between ‘actors’ (or influencers) typically confined to the boxes of social, economic or environmental forces.
    3) To interpret emergent patterns across the discreet cases; and
    4) To present this analysis in appropriate form to farmer-participants, policy makers, researchers and the wider public [post-dissertation].

    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.