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A landmark initiative: The Soil Health Project is helping to shape potato farming of the future

The Soil Health project, led by the University of Minnesota, is wrapping up its fifth year (a four-year project with a one-year extension) to expand scientific understanding of soil health characteristics in potato cultivation to improve the economic and environmental well-being of the industry. This $8 million project is the largest funding for a single potato project in industry history. In a little over four years, this project has:

  • Engaged over 50 professors, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students from 10 institutions.
  • Established eight rotation experiments across seven states and gathered data from 69 participating grower fields in eight states.
  • Surveyed hundreds of growers.
  • Generated various informational materials, including a webinar, 13 fact sheets, and over 100 conference presentations, posters, podcasts, lectures, papers, and grower field days.
  • Drafted a soil health manual for potato growers covering soil health concepts, practices, and economics, which will be updated as new findings emerge.

Even though potato growers know the importance of healthy, productive soils to ensure the long-term success of their operations, managing potato farms for improved soil health is challenging. The project team utilized several methods to understand the underground ecosystem and optimize soil health practices, including:

  • Combining small-plot experimental research with grid-based sampling from grower fields to see the impact of management decisions (e.g., soil carbon amendments, crop rotation length, soil fumigation) on soil health and the soil microbiota and, in turn, the effects of soil health on crop success.
  • Investigating social and psychological factors influencing farmer decisions about managing crops to improve soil health.
  • Modeling how management approaches to improving soil health affect the economics of a farming operation.

The team selected these research methods to learn what soil health means on potato farms and identify effective strategies for improving soil health. The research also sheds light on the feasibility of various approaches and the factors that make them appealing to growers. Emphasis is on leveraging current data to inform future decision-making processes. Growers will have access to the project’s soil health manual this summer.

Growers have a variety of land practices, ownership, and regional disturbances. As a result, the project team is shifting their assessment and direction towards local or regional scales. More concise and detailed decision-making tools will be developed and available as additional data is collected.

Source: Potatoes USA. Measuring and maximizing soil health in potato production
Further information:
The Soil Health Project
Photo: The project team collecting potatoes from a harvest plot.

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse

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