Soil health for stronger farms? We can measure that

Helping farmers better know their soil

Soil is the foundation of global food production, but how can we keep it healthy while increasing agricultural output? Step one: measuring. A Dutch coalition is developing a health index for local soil. Rabobank’s Harry Smit sees great benefits.

Listen to this story as a podcast (in Dutch), or read on for the English interview.

A farmer’s son, Harry Smit grew up thinking he would succeed his father on the farm. But after studying Agricultural Economics at university, he chose to make a difference for farmers at a strategic level, first at the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, helping to shape Dutch and European policy.

Twenty years ago Smit joined Rabobank, where he works today as a RaboResearch Senior Analyst focused on Farm Inputs. He explains the challenges farmers face in their transition to more sustainable soil management, and the opportunities that measuring soil health can bring.

Soil by numbers

The Soil Coalition (BodemCoalitie), Smit explains, started in 2016 as a joint initiative between Rabobank, a.s.r. and Vitens. “We already had regular dealings with insurer a.s.r., the largest agricultural land owner in the Netherlands. Water company Vitens, challenged by high levels of agricultural pollutants in the surface water they treat, was one of the many parties approaching us, as the bank of choice for farmers, with soil-related initiatives.

“Our shared perception was that most of these initiatives lacked an element that financial parties look for: numbers, measurable data. We decided to fill that gap.”

The coalition is developing an instrument that can be used to measure the sustainability performance of agricultural entrepreneurs. It produces a soil health index: a number showing how healthy a farmer’s soil is.

Rewarding sustainability

“A soil health index opens up a lot of possibilities for farmers,” Smit argues. “First of all, a bank can give farmers with a high index number a better interest rate on their loans, because we can sell these loans to so-called impact investors – pension funds and asset managers looking to make a positive impact on people and planet through sustainable investments. But other parties, too – like buyers of their products, or the water company – are prepared to offer proven sustainable farmers better deals.”

“Farmers will be able to manage soil quality by the square meter”

- Harry Smit, RaboResearch

But the index offers more than window dressing. “The biggest advantage is that the index, and the research behind it, can help farmers grow larger and better quality crops,” says Smit.

“Until recently, soil samples were typically taken once every three years, and cost around fifty euros. With new technology that’s already available, the price-per-sample will go down in the next three to five years to a euro or even less. That will enable farmers not only to monitor soil quality more often, but also more intensively. They will be able to manage quality by the square meter, or even for each separate plant.”

Farmers in a squeeze

This is good news for farmers, who are currently “in a squeeze,” as Smit puts it. “Soil lies at the very basis of food production, and land in the Netherlands is expensive – anything from sixty thousand to over a hundred thousand euros per hectare. Land is passed on from generation to generation. Farmers have every interest in keeping it healthy, but they also need to get the highest possible output from it to make a living.”

“Until the seventies, being generous with fertilizer was the answer. Today, for environmental reasons, legislators have clamped down on overfertilization, and the mineral balance is now better,” Smit explains.

The biodiversity factor

“These days, other factors, like organic content, the presence of bacteria and fungi, the moisture balance and compaction determine how good a farmer’s crop will be. Factors we’re only beginning to understand the impact of. The index and underlying research will help farmers find and implement the perfect soil mix, and increase their output in a responsible way.”

“The index will help farmers increase output in a responsible way”

- Harry Smit, RaboResearch

The Soil Coalition’s efforts tie in nicely with the soil strategy of Dutch Minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten, and the country’s broader push towards circular farming. A challenge, however, is the Ministry’s insistence on using natural rather than artificial fertilizers. “The composition of manure, unlike that of artificial fertilizer, can vary considerably,” says Smit. “That doesn’t fit into our ideal of increasing output through precision soil treatment. A solution could be upgrading manure before use on the fields.”

Convincing farmers

Farmers, meanwhile, need to be convinced of the added value of the index, Smit points out. “Farmers are already under a lot of regulatory pressure, so I’m not surprised that all this measuring makes them a little uncomfortable. The last thing they want is even more outsiders coming in and telling them what to do.

“But once they see how a uniform standard, recognized by all parties in the market, opens doors for them, I’m confident they’ll get on board.”

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