Smallholder Soil Health Assessment

Lead Organization:

Colorado State University

Partner Organizations:

East & Southern Africa (ESAf) soil health working group, Kenya AE hub partners, FIPS-Africa, Multipurpose Legumes, Manor House, NMAIST and Botanicals (both Tanzania), and Best Bets (Malawi)

In West Africa: Groundswell/AMSP/INERA (Burkina Faso), CATHI-Gao (Niger), and IDEMS and AES support projects

In the Andes: national soils platform, a network of agroecology projects working in soils, and Proinpa (both Bolivia), and the Bolivian Agroecological Movement (MAB)

RMS teams Stats4SD and IDEMS (all regions)




Soils are the foundation of agricultural systems and fundamental to supporting smallholder farmer livelihoods worldwide. Yet widespread degradation threatens soils’ ability to support multiple functions (e.g., crop production, C storage, water regulation, pest and disease control, biodiversity conservation). This inability is commonly termed “soil health” and, depending on the context and a study’s particular goals, it can be assessed through a variety of tests.

Soils in smallholder systems often suffer from lack of organic matter and nutrient inputs and from erosion, along with intensification of cropping systems through excessive tillage, agrochemical inputs, and cropping system simplification. The drivers and options supporting soil health are highly contextual, reflecting the biophysical environment as well as local knowledge systems, land and animal tenure, and social factors such as farm type, market access, and household gender.

The many organizations working to support soil health and, thus, contribute to overall agroecosystem resilience are exemplified by McKnight CoPs that work across multiple thematic areas, many closely aligned with or at least indirectly involving soils.

Previous project phases responded to CoP interest in improving their soil understanding and capacity to evaluate soil health. The research tools offered can help develop context-specific strategies and evaluate management impacts on a range of key functions, making progress toward monitoring and resilience. Improved consideration of nutrient and organic matter stocks and flows can build understanding of long-term soil health trajectories in smallholder systems, making it easier for partner organizations to assess changes associated with new soil management practices and monitor outcomes as well as facilitate actionable information to farmers. Similar efforts to provide open-source decision support tools exist but are often better for defining contexts, not evaluating changes in soil health. Such tools and data platforms can better inform global tracking of sustainability progress in such frameworks as FAO’s TAPE tool and true cost accounting’s The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB). Other efforts to maintain and increase soil carbon exist globally. For field use, however, they need improved accessibility, including ease of use, adaptation to local systems, and user-relevant information.

Grant Aims:

The overall goal is to build off previous project gains and create learning and evidence on pathways to AE soil management. This includes improving the ability to track and promote AE strategies and circular bionutrient economies in farms and communities, and greater appreciation of the benefits from soil ecosystem services for food production systems.

Specifically, the project aims to:

  • Provide additional support in soil-related research to NGOs, universities, and FRNs, all of which are increasing their attention on AE.
  • Further refine research tools to inform strategies and measure progress in AE management transitions.
  • Scale promising research results to the farm and landscape levels and include in food system approaches.
  • Supply policymakers, many of whom express support for AE practices but lack substantive information, with evidence and knowledge of coherent AE production models

Outputs and Outcomes:

  • Soil health tool kit streamlined using human-centered design to address user needs and interests
  • Complementary soils data platform to strengthen land manager and decisionmaker motivation and understanding of soil health status and pathways to improve it
  • Betterment of platform’s soil health data and insights from multiple assessments (e.g., soil pH, organic matter, water storage, biodiversity)
  • Long-term soil health trajectory models to help farmers and organizations better understand soil management effects on nutrients and soil carbon
  • Continued interaction with projects and organizations in each region and consultation with outside actors; more focused research on regenerative soil management options per region
  • Strategies emphasizing perennialization, spatial/temporal diversification, and improved recycling of organic matter and nutrients at farm and landscape scales
  • Investment in young researchers to expand reach and impact of connecting AE principles to R&D communities; support technical staff in obtaining MSc or PhD degrees
  • Local evidence in regional and global efforts to change systems (e.g., supporting new Meridian-linked project linking smallholders to ecosystem service valuation or in conjunction with regional team advocacy efforts)