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There is a lot of hype around soil health these days. As a result, the farming industry is under pressure to assess the health of soils in order to improve productivity and facilitate the growing link between soil health and sustainable agriculture. This pressure on the farmers in turn places pressure on the researcher who has to figure out the applicable combination of soil health indicators that a farmer can relate to and understand. I have been fortunate to interact with a lot of farmers and I have come to realize that each farmer has his/her own thoughts as to what is interesting when it comes to scientific research. I have also been fortunate to interact and engage with a lot of scientists/researchers in the field of soil science who have devoted their research to designing soil health assessment techniques for the farmer. Being a researcher myself, I have found it very interesting to be in the same room as the theorist and the practitioner.

There are numerous techniques proposed by different experts that all advocate for soil health and the vast majority come from the United States and New Zealand e.g. Cornell Soil Health Assessment book, USDA-NRCS  Soil Health Assessment, and Visual Soil Assessment book by Graham Shepherd. These techniques are unique, but are applicable in their own way, and all advocate for the same cause, soil health. The challenge for farmers  is sieving through all these techniques at their disposal and finding that one technique which they understand and identify with  – one which is simple and informative enough for them that they would be able to use the results and implement directed management practices on their farm

As a researcher, this is no piece of cake. It is very challenging to select soil parameters that are significant, ones that will build a story to tell to the farmer. I am a soil scientist by heart, and I believe that all soil properties and the parameters within the properties are very important. Because soil is a very dynamic system, it has dawned on me that as scientists we are far from understanding the whole story of what is really taking place in the soil. This is especially true when it comes to the soil biology side. What I do know is that we can measure soil parameters that are indicative of what is really going on in this dynamic system, indicators that I perceive as useful to the farmer.

Portia Phohlo

Portia is a Trace and Save researcher and has been part of the team that works on the Woodlands Dairy sustainability project for the past 4 years. She studied B.Sc in Agriculture where she majored in crop and soil science at the University of Fort Hare. She went on to do her honors and master’s degree in soil science at the University of the Free State. She is very passionate about soil health and soil microbiology and believes that applying soil health principles will rehabilitate degraded soils.

In her free time, Portia loves catching up on House of Cards and The Walking Dead series. The latter she says she finds it fascinating how a dead decomposed organic material can still be conscious, this actually breaks all rules of microbiology according to her. When she’s not watching that, she enjoys watching motivational videos from Ted, especially ones by her idols Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Brene Brown.
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Portia Phohlo

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