Prioritizing Soil Quality Research – What exactly does that mean?

February 10, 2014
By Chad Kruger

Interest in “soil quality” (a.k.a. soil health) has grown rapidly over the past decade regardless of agricultural production system or geographical region. While there have been focused efforts on soil conservation in the past, there seems to be a growing consensus that agriculture at large has historically undervalued the important role that soils can play in improving sustainability. Some of these functions include disease suppression, nutrient cycling, and water management.

In Washington State, numerous educational workshops, research experiments and publications have been popping up that have some relevancy to the larger questions of defining and managing for improved soil quality. The interest has been so high that many of these workshops have been at capacity or standing room only events.

CSANR is no stranger to many of these activities and discussions – and our Advisory Committee has long advocated for more research investments focused on soil quality – which we are doing. In fact, we prioritized soil quality in the FY14 BIOAg Grant Program [“Special consideration will be given for proposals in FY14 related to valuation (such as, economic, ecosystem services, etc.), increasing understanding, and management for soil quality.”] and will be funding several research proposals in this area.

The challenge that we’ve face thus far, though, is how to prioritize our fairly limited amount of investment power in an area as broad as soil quality in order to maximize the potential impact we can have for agriculture in our region. With that question in mind, we convened the CSANR Advisory Committee in January to provide guidance into how we prioritize soil quality research.

The Advisory Committee (AC) proposed nearly 100 different possibly soil quality topics that could be broadly categorized into about 15 different thematic groupings. In small working groups the AC further winnowed these lists through discussion and ranking and presented their top three research priorities. In spite of the distribution of agricultural system perspectives across groups, a few key priority areas did emerge from the discussion. Across all four groups there was universal agreement on two priorities:

  1. The role of soil biology and disease management. [To be fair, while disease suppression seemed to be the most easily identified function, there was general agreement that this priority should be about more than “just disease suppression”.]
  2. The economics of farming for improved soil quality.

More than one group also identified the following priorities:

  1. Understanding the role of soils in water management (both supply and quality).
  2. Developing soil quality indicators that farmers can use as a management tool.

Obviously, these are still relatively broad areas of inquiry, but they do provide a useful lens through which to prioritize and evaluate future research investments. The good news is that some of the current research underway does address these priorities and will help kick start our efforts.  I will be charging a task force comprised of faculty and Advisory Committee members to further explore this topic and help us refine our research investment strategies for the next five years.

If you have any specific ideas or research questions that you think would be interesting to add to this discussion, please leave them in the comments field and the task force will take them into consideration.

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