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Making soil health approachable and practical, with Ian Robertson

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By now I’m sure many of you have heard the few episodes on soil health that I’ve recorded with people like Harriet Mela, Matt Powers, James White, and others. I know that the subject of soil has become really popular with growers and it’s always talked about as being central to the success of regenerative agriculture and broader environmental health, and I don’t disagree. Yet I’m often worried that the discourse around soil science is reminiscent of other scientific studies in which there’s a never ending search for more granular details. 

Breaking components of the whole overview down into chemistry, biology, and even down to anatomical structure, all without making the learnings accessible to soil stewards, growers and land managers. 

Such detailed science shrouded in a veil of technical jargon and research papers makes me feel that the real learnings are inaccessible and overly complicated. For that reason I’ve often held back from really going deeper into soil on this show. 

Here I hope to find the key concepts and actionable information that anyone can use to get real results, and that’s often been hard to find. 

Yet that’s exactly what brings me to today’s session, where I get to speak to a soil scientist and consultant who believes, as I do, that we need to make soil concepts and principles more accessible and help to guide land managers along the way to learn how to make their own observations and discoveries in order to foster relationships or understanding with the land we take care of. 

Ian Robertson has a lifelong involvement in all things soil, growing up on an organic farm, and working in various roles helping farmers understand their soils. His present role is General Manager of Sustainable soil Management, a soil testing and consultation company in the UK. 

Over the last 20 years Ian has developed the most detailed soil test, which is widely used throughout the UK and Europe, allowing farmers a greater understanding of how best to manage their soil. Ian delivers soil presentations that are practical and engaging and he works across all sectors of agriculture to build long term relationships between himself, farmers, and their soil.

In this episode we start by exploring what aspects of soil are really essential to understand a holistic picture of the function of the earth you’re working with, as well as the best tests to gain that knowledge. Spoiler alert, many of those tests turn out to be things you can observe with your own senses.
From there we dissect the three main conventional agricultural practices of tillage, fertilization, and crop protection chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides for their impact on the soil and what is really happening from a scientific perspective when they are used. 

We use that part of the discussion as a springboard towards which soil stewardship practices are broadly beneficial and represent the least amount of risk regardless of the soil type and makeup you have.

Ian’s learnings from decades and thousands of soil tests make for a very practical and digestible overview of the more detailed science out there and hopefully will act as an antidote to the overwhelming amount of information about soil out there at the moment. 

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