Soil Stories: Exploring Perceptions of Soil Health in Vermont

Research Information and Reports


Interview Project Information


Farmers manage land in ways that provides valuable ecosystem services of soil health, biodiversity, watershed function, resiliency to climate and disease, as well as farm productivity. Stewardship-based land management contributes to healthy agri-ecosystems by nurturing biodiversity above and below ground, supporting healthy watersheds, and restoring balance to nutrient and carbon cycles. Reducing atmospheric carbon is a critical part of political and scientific calls to action.

In the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment, the United States recognized the potential for agricultural management and land use change to realize this particular piece of climate change policy goals. Political awareness of the importance of soil health for climate stability and agricultural productivity is nothing new.

Nearly a century ago in 1932 the United States formed the Soil Conservation Service within the United States Department of Agriculture – in recognition of the crucial links between agricultural productivity, water management, and soil erosion. As the story goes, the Dust Bowl had transported dust from the degraded farmlands in Kansas and Oklahoma to the doorsteps of policymakers in Washington, D.C. Because soil is but one resource that needs to be conserved, the agency has since grown into the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In pursuit of its goal to promote healthy soil management in agriculture, the NRCS prescribes four key principles for soil health: (1) use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil, (2) manage soils more by disturbing them less, (3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil, (4) keep the soil covered as much as possible.

The last decade has seen a quickly growing movement to implement policies and programs that support farmers’ ability to both steward the land and realize productivity. Presently, state healthy soils legislation exists in California, Maryland, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, and bills have been proposed in other states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont. These initiatives reflect a nationwide urgency to reconcile agricultural productivity with healthy ecosystems. While programs vary, each involves incentives, financial support, and technical assistance for farmers to manage for soil health.

Many states and countries have also developed agri-environment schemes to facilitate environmental stewardship on agricultural land. Programs include payment for ecosystem services, environmental stewardship programs, and water quality funds. Elsewhere, there are community-led resource management plans that evolved to solve conflicts between industries, environmentalists, and regulators, allowing legislators to support local solutions that in turn support the public interest. These include Maine’s co-management lobster industry law, Kansas’ water quality plan, and California’s emerging initiative to solve water scarcity issues by creating water management districts to solve the problem at the local level.

Research shows that many farmers are stewards of the land and are struggling to continue to provide the benefits of stewardship because of financial barriers. Others want to steward the land but encounter financial, technical, physical, cultural, or regulatory barriers impeding stewardship. Policymakers are tasked with developing agricultural and environmental policies that best support farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Nature and Purpose

The purpose of the Healthy Soils Law Project is to identify the key qualities that characterize policy that effectively supports environmental stewardship in agriculture. By investigating and documenting the ways in which farmers are producers of food, fuel, fiber, and are also stewards and conservationists, we hope to gain insight into a meaningful policy framework to support agricultural economies and environmental stewardship.

The project’s methodology includes both a thorough review of scientific, legal, and policy literature as well as participatory action research-based community engagement. We intend to incorporate local knowledge and perspectives into our policy analysis in recognition that democratic solutions require community-led local participation in every stage of policymaking.

Towards these goals, the project aims to document knowledge exchange between farmers, lawmakers and regulators, researchers, advocates, and consumers about agricultural land stewardship, healthy soil, energy and water conservation, biodiversity, and climate resiliency in order to inform meaningful and inclusive healthy soils legislation and policy.

The particular purpose of conducting interviews with diverse stakeholders is to combine the best of different kinds of knowledge, which is particularly helpful for research that seeks to impact policy or serve the public. Research findings and conclusions are more easily communicated, accepted, and implemented, when the research includes perspectives and input from a variety of stakeholders with diverse views and interests.

Project Benefits

Our review of the literature and initial community conversations indicate that environmental stewardship and a strong agricultural economy can be mutually beneficial. With the ecosystem imbalances in natural cycles – water, nutrients, carbon – brought on by industrialization and commercialization in our food systems, communities and governments around the world are increasingly focused on identifying solutions to the tension between agricultural productivity and environmental stewardship.

The benefits of this project include discovery of the sources of these tensions and identification of sources of institutional support for reconciliation. It is clear that different states and regions are characterized by different economies, obstacles, and resources. Different locales have also implemented different solutions. Some turn to local knowledge for solutions, some impose strict regulations to protect natural resources on private lands, and others look to markets to alleviate the unsustainable burdens placed on natural environments.

In Vermont, there is recent and intersectoral interest in the viability of a payment for ecosystem services program to address the critical agricultural and ecological crises that presently concern the state. The foundational idea that gave birth to PES was that for agricultural systems to align with environmental stewardship, producers should be paid for not just the food they grow, but for the full range of contributions to ecosystems and to the public. As we look to Vermont as a case study, this project offers unique benefits to Vermont by exploring the diversity of perspectives on agriculture, PES, and ecosystem health. More broadly, the project offers contributions to the nationwide movement to address climate change in the agricultural sector, by identifying key qualities of meaningful and sustainable agri-environmental policy.

About the Project

The Healthy Soils Law Project is a research project of the Farm and Energy Initiative, which is a collaboration between Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment and Center for Food and Agriculture Systems. The Farm and Energy Initiative is funded by the National Agricultural Library, Agriculture Research Service, and the United States Department of Agriculture. Individual FEI projects are developed with this funding and with support of local institutional partners and advisors. Each project has a project coordinator and research associates or clinicians. The research associates and clinicians are a combination of JD, Masters, and LL.M students at Vermont Law School.

The Healthy Soils Law Project does not have any clients or official partners. Katherine Oaks, an Energy LLM student at Vermont Law School and Energy Fellow (2018-2020), is the project coordinator. Research associates change each semester with some working on the project for multiple semesters.

Research Protocols

Throughout the 2019 Spring Semester, to aid in our research design, we conducted phone conferences and in person meetings with farmers, researchers, advocates, government employees, and other community members in Vermont and New England. One goal of these discussions was to explain the research objectives and to gain insight from stakeholders to improve our research design.

After these conversations, we incorporated feedback into our design of the interviews protocol and subject matter focus. Interviews will be voluntary, confidential, in-person, and audio-recorded. Interviews will be semi-structured, with eight or ten pre-formed questions asked of each interviewee, allowing for conversation and additional questions should they arise naturally in the conversational format. The uniformity of questions will vary only slightly by sector (academic, government, farmers, advocates). Interviews are estimated to last between forty-five minutes and one hour.

Interviewees will be selected non-systematically by the research team from government, agriculture, academia, and non-profit sectors within Vermont, so that the interviewees will represent a diversity of perspectives on the research topic. Invitations to participate in an interview will be sent by email, mail, or by hand delivery, to invitees and to food and farm organization leaders in Vermont. Information about the project will be included in a project description sheet along with notice that interviews will be voluntary and confidential.