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Soil Health

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Background on the Development of the Soil Health Position

The Soil Health Position at the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) was initiated through the approval of SB 5502 Budget Bill for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (see page 22 of LFO Recommendations for Package 365). Package 365 established the Soil Health Specialist position at ODA using funding from a cooperative agreement from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This position serves as the in-house expert to improve soil health in Oregon. 

Specifically, the Soil Health Specialist will:  

  1. Support implementation of ODA’s climate change plan which was drafted in response to the Governor’s Climate Action Plan (EO 20-04);
  2. Advance Oregon agricultural practices that promote soil health through education, technical assistance, and coordination;
  3. Pursue funding from agency partners to support more widespread adoption of soil health practices;
  4. Recommend additional policies and programs in Oregon to support soil health, using other state policies as models; and
  5. Collaborate on research to understand Oregon’s soil carbon sequestration rates and how various practices can promote carbon sequestration and climate resilience.

This position is vacant, so we cannot provide quick or detailed responses. ​

See our information sheet​ about soil health principles, a simple soil health evaluation tool, and steps you can take to improve your soil health​. ​

Soil is the surface mineral and/or organic layer of the earth that has experienced some degree of physical, biological, and chemical weathering. Soil is the foundation of life on earth and is a nonrenewable (not recoverable within a human lifespan) natural resource. It can take hundreds to thousands of years for an inch of soil to develop but can be lost instantly due to erosion. Human management can directly improve or degrade the quality and health of soils. Soils form from the breakdown of rocks (parent material) into smaller and smaller pieces with the addition of organic matter from the decay of soil microbes, plant matter, and animals. Soil is the 2 millimeters and smaller material where the average soil sample by volume​ is 45% to 49% minerals, 2% to 50% water, 2% to 50% air, and 1% to 5% organic matter. ​
How a soil forms and the ratio of minerals to water to air to organic matter is determined by the interactions between the five soil-forming (also known as soil genesis) factors:
  • Climate — precipitation and temperature, directly and indirectly, affect soil genesis. Less soil development occurs in drier, colder climates compared to faster soil formation in warmer, wetter climates.
  • Organisms — plants and animals (including humans) impact soil formation as different plants provide different inputs and different organisms will also interact with soil and provide varying inputs.
  • Parent material — different rocks are composed of various minerals and leads to different soils. Organic soils (histosols) develop in saturated areas from dead and decaying plant and animal matter.
  • Time — soil takes tens to hundreds of thousands of years to develop. Young soils have weak to no soil horizon development. As soils mature, soils develop more distinct horizons. A soil becomes old as it weathers and becomes stripped of its mineral nutrients. 
  • Topography — the landscape slope affects drainage, runoff, erosion, and deposition of soil.​
Interactions between the five soil-forming factors produce an infinite variety of soils across the earth’s surface. To learn more, see how the five ​soil-forming factors affect soils in Oregon​. For more information about your estimated soil, check out the USDA NRCS Soil Web Survey Application​.​​​

Soils are a living, breathing ecosystem! Soils can be a rich and dynamic ecosystem that serve as the foundation of food systems, and help regulate water, air quality, and the climate. Soils support organisms ranging from microscopic organisms (e.g., bacteria) to insects and worms, to larger animals like moles and snakes, to fungi and plants of all sizes! Soil nutrients are critical for plant and organisms’ healthy lives. The physical properties of soils including soil density and the amount of sand, silt, and clay (the three soil particle sizes that makeup soil) help determine where we can build our homes, roads, and schools. 

Soil health is at the intersection of soil biology, chemical, and physical properties. It requires us to look at all three components to determine the health of the soil. The USDA NRCS has defined soil health as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This definition highlights the importance to manage soils as a living resource so that our soils are sustainable for future generations. Healthy soil will vary based on climate and inherent soil properties. 

In general, a healthy soil performs the following five essential functions:​
  • Cycles nutrients – Nutrients and elements are stored, transformed, and cycled in the soil. Elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus can be transformed into plant-available forms, held in the soil, or lost to the atmosphere or water bodies.
  • Filters and buffers – The minerals and microbes in the soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials to protect the quality of water, air, and other resources.
  • Provides physical stability and support – Soils provide a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide support for human structures.
  • Regulates water – Soils help control drainage, flow, and storage of water and solutes, a substance dissolved in a solution (for example, salt dissolves in water, therefore salt is the solute). Water from rain, snowmelt, or irrigation flows over the land or into and through the soil.
  • Sustains biodiversity and habitat – Plants, animals, and soil microorganisms depend on soil.

  • Maximize Presence of Living Roots
  • Minimize Disturbance
  • Maximize Soil Cover
  • Maximize Biodiversity

For more information, see USDA's ​Principles to Manage Soil for Health.​​

  1. Keep the soil covered. Include cover crops in your rotation to protect against erosion. When possible, keep residue on the soil surface.
  2. Disturb the soil as little as possible. Use no-till or reduced tillage farming practices instead of plowing to reduce erosion. Rotate livestock.
  3. Rotate crops to increase biodiversity. Crop rotation can interrupt pest and disease cycles, stimulate plant growth, and provide habitat for pollinators and organisms. 
  4. Maximize living roots throughout the year. Include a cover crop in your rotation, reduce fallow, and use diverse crop rotations to reduce soil erosion and provide food for soil organisms.



Wym Matthews
Program Manager
Fertilizer Program
Phone: 503-986-4792