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Optimizing Soil Health

As the population of one of the largest countries in the world continues to rise, India will need to produce more food with fewer resources. A prerequisite to enhancing crop production is optimum soil health.

A first step in protecting soil resources is to quantitatively establish the basic characteristics and current health status of the soil. In India and elsewhere, farmers and other professionals have generally directed their attention to the chemical analysis (macro and micro nutrients) of soils, neglecting the physical structure and the soil biota that can offer important clues for understanding soil health and informing its proper management.

TCI Scholar Phil Frost (left), TCI Faculty Fellow Harold van Es (right)

The Government of India has also placed a priority on soil health. Together with researchers in the Section of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, TCI researchers are working to develop a “soil assessment framework” for Indian agricultural land. This framework will use basic physical, chemical and biological indicators to assess soil functioning; identify constraints; and develop new management practices based on actual conditions to improve soil functioning.

They will use the mobile Cornell Soil Health Test and SoilDoc, developed at Cornell and the University of Maryland, respectively—tools that will enable them to develop a “soil lab in a box” for direct testing in remote, infrastructure-poor regions throughout India.

Soil and land use surveys are also be combined with GIS and GPS mapping to construct digital soil maps, providing new opportunities for communicating and reporting on soil health throughout India.

Farmers will be trained on soil testing and advised about management strategies to address soil constraints and serve as depositories for soil characterization data.

The work will be executed in collaboration with Indian entities such as Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), whose members will function as farmer trainers and consultants to increase prospects for project success.