What Is It Like To Do Sustainable Soil Management? The English Farmers’ Experience

Dr. Anna Krzywosznska is a social scientist, and a Research Fellow at the Department of Geography at the University of
Sheffield. Over the last few years she has been studying the uptake of sustainable soil management practices amongst
English farmers. She has found that the experience of adapting soil-friendly farming systems can be difficult for
farmers because it makes them ‘stand out’ from their peer community. As a result, these farmers create ‘communities
of practice’ in which they can both exchange learning and support one another. She has also found that these
communities are reaching out to scientists who become not only sources of information, but also sources validation for
these new ways of being a good farmer

Globally, soil degradation is one of the biggest challenges to food security and environmental sustainability. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, a third of global soils are now degraded. In the United Kingdom, the concerns are also growing that soils are losing their functionality, and will not be able to support agriculture and the wider environment in the future. While everyone has a role to play in preventing soil degradation, farmers and land managers certainly have very good reasons to protect their soils. However, achieving this in practice is not as straight-forward as we would like it to be.

That is because practicing sustainable soil management in many ways goes against mainstream farming practice. Modern farming has developed primarily through a focus on ‘tractors and chemicals’ – better, bigger, faster machinery, and stronger, more effective chemical solutions to both fertility and pest problems. As a result, soils have started to be seen by many farmers not as a resource, but as an obstacle, and a lot of effort is channelled every year into overcoming soil limitations to achieve the best possible yield. Furthermore, mechanical and chemical technology has been so successful in producing high yields that most farmers have started using a very similar ‘toolkit’ to manage their farms. As a result, there has been less local adaptation and innovation, and more reliance on advice from agronomists and input producers.

Sustainable soil management methods are rather different. In contrast to conventional farming, sustainable soil management does not have ‘a blueprint’, which means that local adaptation of general rules is necessary. This is very typical of sustainable farming practices, and it makes them more knowledgeintensive. So how do farmers learn how to shift their farm to a sustainable soil management system? And what is the role for scientists and researchers in supporting the spread of sustainable soil management? Read on…

How do farmers learn?

It is important to remember that taking up innovation such as a new farming system is not just an individual process: humans typically learn in groups. People who are interested in a particular activity which requires a lot of knowledge tend to form ‘communities of practice’. Communities of practice are simply groups of individuals who share certain practices and who seek to learn from one another to become better at what they do. Dog owners, cooks, musicians, gardeners, parents – they all form communities of practice, which can be more of less structured. We all belong to many communities of practice simultaneously in our lives.

In communities of practice we not only learn from one another how to do a certain activity, but also decide and negotiate what is the ‘right’ way to do this activity. Doing things ‘the right way’ means being a good member of a community of practice – a good dog owner, cook, musician, gardener, or parent. Or even – you guessed it – a good farmer. Members in communities of practice are constantly discussing what the right things to do are, and therefore what it means to be a good community member. Sometimes some individuals may have ideas that are so radically different from the majority that they split off and they form their own community of practice (think, for example, of how ‘jazz’ used to be seen as noise and had to form its own community to become recognised as a form of music). And this is what is happening with farmers practicing sustainable soil management right now.

So what is it like for an individual farmer to ‘split off’ the mainstream farming community, and try out a sustainable soil management system? My research suggests that there are three stages to this process: seeking, experimenting, and contributing. I have also seen that as the farmers change their system, they use scientists and scientific sources of information in various ways.

A different way of farming is possible

The seeking stage starts simply with the realisation that a different way of working the soil (for example not ploughing) is possible, that it exists. Farmers I interviewed told me that they first became interested in looking for a different way of managing their soils because of concerns about inefficiency, such as the amount of time and fuel spent on establishing seed beds, or a desire to increase productivity, such as enhancing sub-optimal yields or maximising micronutrients in crops. None of the farmers I interviewed told me that they had been initially motivated by environmental or soil conservation. Once they became aware that changing soil management was a potential way to address these productivity or efficiency related issues, the farmers looked for information about this from other farmers as well as from scientific reports.

Interestingly, the farmers I interviewed told me that being exposed to this new information was not just a process of learning. They often spoke of something we could call ‘a lightbulb moment’. Very often, this inspiration was related to a change in perspective on their soils, from seeing soils as an inert substrate to seeing them as a living system. Farmers described this as a change in perspective or mentality, an inspiration, or even ‘a farming life-changer’. One farmer told me; 

‘I’d always thought the organic matter was better off being mixed into the full soil profile. …at that meeting I learned that the organic matter and most of the life of the soil was in the top sort of two inches of the soil. … So that was a sort of, I wouldn’t say an epiphany, but it was a change of mind-set from that meeting onwards’

For some farmers, particular individuals, such as Elaine Ingham, or Elizabeth Stockdale, were particularly inspirational at this stage. After spending some time in the ‘seeking’ stage, the farmers would move on to experimenting. For some farmers, starting the experimentation meant ‘biting the bullet’ and, for example, investing full-scale into direct drilling machinery. Others did things more gradually, for example adopting only some of the elements of the system, or using contractors to try out new practices on a particular site.

Starting experimentation immediately set these farmers apart from their farming neighbours. A change in practice was easily visible to the neighbours through for example ‘scruffy’ looking fields. The farmers working in the new system would also have different working rhythms (because for example they no longer ploughed), which meant they were not always in the fields at the same time as their neighbours. Their crops could also have different germination and growth rhythms. As a result, the farmers I interviewed were very aware that their fields were essentially telling anyone who know how to look that they were doing something ‘unusual’ – perhaps even ‘abnormal’. As a result, many of these farmers felt themselves branded as ‘mad’ by their neighbours. This could create very real feelings of isolation and even loneliness, especially for those farmers in the early stages who were not yet seeing any benefits from their new methods. One farmer told me that

‘sometimes it does feel very lonely when you see your bad fields and the neighbours good fields’. Another farmer how being ‘different’ was stressful as it was putting his reputation on the line, and even endangering his contracting business:

‘It would be nice to see other people practicing it in the area, and seeing how they get on because, you know I’m sort of sticking my neck out doing what I’m doing …I don’t particularly want to be pushing the boundaries too far really to the extent that, yes I end up getting either egg on my face or losing money … or credibility.

Dealing with being ‘different’

Participating in face-to-face and online groups of ‘like-minded’ farmers helped the farmers feel less alone in the risky process of making changes to their farm. Online activity was very important, and the farmers I interviewed used online fora (such as the Farming Forum), and connected to through Twitter or WhatsApp groups. This allowed them also to connect internationally, particularly with farmers in Australia, New Zealand, and the US who also speak English but who have a longer experience of soil conservation methods. The farmers I interviewed stressed that this increased interaction was crucial to them in taking their first step into sustainable soil management, and to maintaining their practice in a largely unsupportive environment. As one farmer told me, in relation to his and a friend’s participation in their local group:

‘I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. I think (my friend) has struggled being out there on his own, and farming effectively on his own, because he makes huge leaps in his management, and then falls back because everyone around him is conventional, and that farming community effectively isolates him. And he thinks oh, I might just do it the old-fashioned way.’

This particular farmer told me that interacting with other members of the community of practice helped him retain a sense that sustainable soil management practices are meaningful and not a waste of time and effort. A sense of community was seen as very important in remaining committed to what some may see as a difficult and unnecessary process. A more experienced farmer also commented that: 

‘just being able to talk about what we’re doing with likeminded farmers, I’d never have gotten as far, or even dared to do what I’ve done without knowing that other people are out there with the same ideas and doing the same sort of thing.

What was the role of science?

Most experienced farmers were at the contributing stage, spreading the knowledge and information about sustainable soil management. While all the farmers interviewed used scientific hypotheses to justify taking up sustainable soil management methods, they did not usually use scientific tools and procedures to monitor outcomes systematically and validate these hypotheses in their own fields. For example, a number of the farmers commented on the expected benefits soil conservation would have on the biological activity in their soils, but few sought to verify this through soil testing or systematic earthworm counts. Similarly a number of farmers argued that soil conservation would increase soil organic matter, which would in turn result in higher nutrient density in their crops; however, they did not seek to validate this through, for example, systematic tissue analysis. In fact a number of the farmers interviewed expressed belief that the new system was ‘the right thing to do’ even when they were unable to indicate specific positive effects for their farm business. As one farmer explained:

“What makes me do it, comes back to intuition, I just think for all sorts of reasons and all the things I’ve picked up in the last few years doing it, I think this is right, the right thing to do …in my mind it’s the right thing to do.”

The farm is a complex and openended system, and some of the farmers interviewed pointed out that trying to validate cause-effect relationships in this context may not be practical for them. Interestingly, however, the support for sustainable soil management in the scientific community was important to this community of practice. The support of scientific institutions and individual scientists was especially important as many of the expected effects of conservation agriculture either take a long time to become apparent (e.g. increases in soil organic matter), or are impossible or impractical for farmers to validate in the context of individual farms (e.g. positive impacts on watershed hydrology or carbon capture). While not being able to point to scientifically verifiable outcomes, the farmers referred to scientific studies about the overall positive impacts of conservation agriculture on soil processes. This allowed them to add legitimacy to what other farmers may be seeing as ‘abnormal’ practice.

So what role did the sustainable soil management farmers see for scientists and scientific research? The farmers I interviewed wanted for scientists to become more involved in their on-farm experimentation. The farmers called on scientists and researchers to help them clarify the usefulness of new technologies and techniques in achieving the objectives the farmers had in mind. The farmers interviewed also wished scientists would get more involved in demonstrating the value and validity of sustainable soil management to other land managers and to society more broadly. Science, these farmers felt, was important to convince others – even though, in practice, they themselves had only been convinced by ‘seeing with their own eyes’ and experimenting in their own fields. As one farmer said:

“[the proof of the positive changes I’ve seen] it’s quite physical and quite observational rather than lab, you know, putting numbers on it, and again I know that for some people that’s a problem, I’ve had even the farmers, when they visited you, tell them how much better it’s [the soil] got and they’re like yeah but you can’t prove any of that and they’re dead right, I can’t.”

A farmer-led change in which scientists are welcome

My research showed that the leadership on sustainable soil management as a different form of farming is coming from the farming community of practice. As far as the farmers are concerned, the role for the scientists is to work with this community and help them grow and become better, enhancing their learning and supporting their authority. Working together, they suggested, with the farmers identifying research needs, would both generate valuable learning by validating the hypothesis the farmers have, and create scientifically valid evidence in support of sustainable soil management methods. These farmers placed their own values and mission at the centre, and saw themselves as well placed to generate the research questions and identify areas for work to be performed by the scientists:

“It’s very important that the scientific community are chipping away …backing up all these what are effectively anecdotal reports – that’s the important thing the scientific community and academic community are doing; is looking at all our weird farmer anecdotes and then methodically and studiously showing why those anecdotes are the case.”

There is a great appetite in the sustainable soil management community for interacting with scientists. To be effective, this collaboration should be structured in ways that the farmers see as useful and relevant. The scientists are very welcome, but the farmers are the ones at the wheel.

This article is a shortened and modified version of the paper “Making knowledge and meaning in communities of practice: What role may science play? The case of sustainable soil management in England.” Published in Soil Use and Management, 2019; 35: 160– 168. You can access the full version of this publication by scanning this code

Dr. Krzywoszynska is also the founder of the Soil Care Network, which has a fantastic monthly newsletter on all things soil. You can sign up on the Soil Care Networks website . If you have thoughts about this article (were your experiences similar, or different?), why not tweet to Dr. Krzywoszynska on @Anna_K_speaking. You can find more information on Dr. Krzywoszynska’s research and her publications by scanning this code