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Soil Champions Launch New Soil Health Institute

Citing a need for dedicated funding to study soil health and long-term research to learn how to repair broken soils, the Farm Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation have formed the Soil Health Institute. 

"There are two truths about soil," says Bill Buckner, president and chief executive officer of the Noble Foundation. "One is that soil plays a critical role in our everyday lives. The other is that soil is a precious resource that can be exhausted."

Over the last 150 years, one half of the earth's topsoil has been lost. In the U.S. alone, 70% of the soil is considered marginal, Buckner says. 

The Soil Health Institute will address these alarming trends, by safeguarding and enhancing the vitality and productivity of the soil. It will work directly with a broad-spectrum of farmers and ranchers, public- and private-sector researchers, academia, policymakers, government agencies, industry, environmental groups, and consumers. 

"The Soil Health Institute will provide much-needed research funding so we can better understand our soil. We will make that research publicly available, so that we can work together to provide solutions for improving our soil and protecting it for our children and grandchildren," Buckner says. 

It will focus on five areas: research, economics, standards and measurement, education, and public policy. 

Among the first objectives is to develop an industry standard soil-health assessment test for the U.S. "We need to develop baseline processes and standards and determine what state our soil is in," Buckner explains. 

The Institute will aggregate and catalog soil science research from around the globe to eliminate duplicate research projects. Information will be shared and disseminated in a number of ways, including coordination with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and conservation districts. 

The Soil Health Institute has a staff of three people and will be based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Its board of directors will be led largely by farmers, but includes industry leaders who can help coordinate research, technology, and development of best management practices to improve soil.

"This is a global network. The research we'll be doing can come from outside the U.S.," Buckner says. 

"From my point of view, it's about knowledge," adds Neil Conklin, president of the Farm Foundation. "Knowledge of soil is a critical piece. We need to help build the knowledge base for what it will take to farm successfully in the U.S. and around the world." 

The Soil Health Institute is an evolution of the Soil Renaissance, developed two years ago by the Farm Foundation and Noble Foundation as a collaboration of farmers, scientists, government agencies, and others. Their charge: Advance soil health and make it a cornerstone of land-use management decisions. 

"What we found from the Soil Renaissance is that long-term collaboration is needed," Conklin explains.  

The Noble Foundation is contributing $20 million over the next 10 years as seed money for the organization. Buckner expects more money and more time will be needed for the Soil Health Institute to fulfill its mission. The effort is underway immediately: The Institute's first board meeting is December 4 in Washington, D.C., coinciding with World Soil Day, which is December 5.

"Improving soils is important, but it won't be easy," he says. "It takes several hundred years for nature to create an inch of topsoil."  

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