Soil health is an essential requirement of a sustainable, functioning agroecosystem. Tracking soil health to determine sustainability at the local level largely falls to farmers, even though they often lack access to critical information. We examine farmers’ participation in gathering soil information at the farm and paddock scale over the last two decades in Australia and the United States, by reviewing national-level reporting of farmer use of soil testing and farm planning as well as qualitative research on farmer perspectives. The level of participation in soil testing and farm planning has remained stable in the last two decades, with only 25% and 30% of landholders, respectively, participating nationally, in either country. The review revealed national-level reporting has a number of limitations in understanding farmers’ use of soil information and, in particular, fails to indicate the frequency and intensity of soil testing as well as farmer motivation to test soil or what they did with the soil information. The main use of soil testing is often stated as “determining fertilizer requirements”, yet data show soil testing is used less commonly than is customary practice. In Australia and in the United States, customary practice is three and half times more likely for decisions on fertilizer application levels. The rhetoric is heavy on the use of soil testing as a decision tool, and that it guides best practices. However, given that only a quarter of farmers are soil testing, and doing so infrequently and in low densities, the level of information on soil health is poor. While farmers report consistent monitoring of soil conditions, few have consistent records of such. In contrast to the information on the poor state of soil health, there is strong farmer interest in procuring soil health benefits through changes in farm practices such as conservation tillage or cover crops, even if they are unable to demonstrate these soil health benefits through soil testing. Many farmers report the use of observation in lieu of laboratory testing. Finally, we point to the need for soil information to include observational indicators to best allow a blend of traditional extension strategies with digital technology to create communities of interest in soil management. This would transcend the boundaries between those with expertise and those with experience in soil health management.
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