by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
LIVERPOOL, NY — A Peace Corps trip to Bolivia exposed Aaron Ristow to the dramatic ill effects of severe soil degradation, both in regard to soil productivity and the environment. Now a Cornell Cooperative Extension associate in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section, Ristow hopes to further research about soil health. Ristow presented at the 2018 Corn & Soybean Winter Expo recently about the importance of evaluating the cost and benefit of soil health practices in New York.
Ristow said for many years, researchers have proven that soil health affects soil fertility; however, now their focus has expanded. He said the New York State Soil Health Initiative 2017-18, funded through New York State Agriculture and Markets, is researching the profitability of soil health.
“We are working on linking soil health with profits, but we’re not there yet,” Ristow said.
He said that soil contains amazing biodiversity and abundance.
“Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of organisms that suppress plant disease, insect and weed pests,” Ristow said. “They form beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots; recycle essential plant nutrients; improve soil stability and structure for better water infiltration, retention and drainage; and increase grower profits and protect the environment.”
Protecting soil health is also important because soil health affects erosion, water quality and food security.
“Soil health is a win-win solution,” Ristow said. It offers low cost resilience to weather extremes while reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture. Farmers build soil organic matter by reducing tillage, winter cover crops, using manure, composting, and more perennial crops.”
The New York State Soil Health Initiative year one (2017) objectives included quarterly economic and environmental benefits; expand on the Soil Health Working Group and other prior and ongoing activities and momentum; evaluate innovative cropping systems, cover crop species, tillage and other management options; research on biochar and composts; and produce a Soil Health Roadmap and hold a Soil Health Summit by the end of year one.
“This is like a roadmap, a two-year guide for obtaining funding and research and getting funding to where stakeholders want it,” Ristow said. “We need to quantify the objectives which is very hard.”
He said oftentimes, it feels like economists versus agronomists. Improving soil health isn’t free. Ristow said costs include tillage and planting equipment; cover crop seed; reducing acreage of cash crops; and labor, management, and time for specific benefits.
Many benefits can mitigate and possible cover the costs. Ristow said benefits to farms can include increased yield, resilience to weather extremes, savings on labor with fewer tillage operations, and foregoing major capital investments such as drainage and irrigation systems.
Soil health also brings environmental benefits. Ristow mentioned improved water quality, less soil erosion and reduction of greenhouse grass emissions and soil carbon sequestration.
Ristow hopes to gather from more information that will help improve soil health research. The information comes from farmer surveys, in-depth interviews, case studies, literature reviews, metadata analysis, and Extension and peer-reviewed publications.
Ristow asked attendees — and any New York farmers — to respond to the anonymous, volunteer survey at To learn more about the survey, visit