6 Principles of Soil Health: Context


Picture it: a crunchy crust on the bottom. Bright, red pepperonis sprinkled on top of a layer of beautifully melted mozzarella cheese. The smell playfully wafts through the air until it hits your nostrils. Your mouth begins to water at the thought of eating the perfect slice of pizza. Would you buy it and eat it?


Most people would probably say yes, but the answer should be “it depends”. Here’s why.


The answer’s not so simple anymore, is it? Let’s take it further. What if the slice of pizza cost $100? Can you afford to buy it? What if your parent or spouse forbid you from eating pizza ever again? Eating pizza is now an act of rebellion! What if you are a vegetarian or vegan? Eating this slice of pizza goes against your philosophy of eating. What if you are lactose intolerant? The list goes on.


For many folks, regenerative agriculture resembles the perfect slice of pizza. Better soil health, increased biodiversity, improved water and air quality, more nutrients in our food, all the while increasing net profitability. Win-win-win-win-win! Shouldn’t every single producer jump head-first into regenerative agriculture right this second?? The answer should be “it depends”. Context is key.


Regenerative agriculture is a wonderful system and an admirable goal for any producer. However, every single farm and ranch operation is different. More importantly, every single farmer and rancher is different. We differ with respect to finances, climate, soil, aversion to change, family members, family opinion, neighbor opinion, spiritual beliefs… the list is endless. So, don’t be disappointed when a regenerative consultant answers your question with some form of “it depends”. The right decision for any farm or ranch needs to fit within the context of the operation or else a great plan with the best intentions could fall flat on its face. This happens often with cover crops when farmers don’t get the results they were looking for and leave the experience saying “cover crops don’t work here. They’re a waste of money.” Chances are, context was not taken into account in the planning process. This shows that the road to improving soil health needs to be laid in the proper context or it most likely won’t work, hence why context is the first principle of soil health.


Let’s look at a few examples to help you think about your own context and how that might affect your decision-making. If you’re not a producer, this is still a good exercise to learn more about yourself and your role in regenerative agriculture, even if it is just that of a consumer.

Self Context

Are you the type of person who likes to go full-steam ahead into new projects or are you someone who makes ten spreadsheets analyzing the situation before you possibly dip your toe in the water? In other words, what’s your aversion to risk and change? We all have different personalities and it’s important that you have a general idea of yours so that you don’t feel pressured to do something or go at the same pace as someone else when you don’t feel entirely comfortable doing it. Regenerative agriculture is a marathon, not a sprint and, just like dieting, comfort level is an important factor in long-term success. Other helpful areas to think about could be your motivations for operating regeneratively, your tolerance level for peer pressure, your patience level, your relationships or even your natural level of curiosity. Ask your spouse, parent or best friend if you have trouble thinking about yourself. They’ll tell you. All of these factors will play a role in the regenerative decision-making process.

Financial Context

At the end of the day, farming and ranching is a business. Money is the lifeblood of business and, as much as we want to do the right thing for the health of the planet and ourselves, decisions have to make sense financially or the business could go belly-up in a hurry. Play the long-game and do what makes financial sense. For those strapped for cash, experiment with as little of your operation as you can stomach were things to go horribly wrong. Maybe it’s an acre. Maybe it’s fifty.  For those sitting on a little more cash, you have more wiggle room to experiment with regenerative practices on your operation. Do what you can afford, but the most important lesson is to observe and learn from the changes you do make. Lastly, it’s crucial that producers do an enterprise analysis to understand which enterprises are the most profitable and which are the least. You can’t properly take finances into consideration if you don’t truly know them!

Geographical Context

What’s wrong with this statement: Regenerative farmers should always grow pineapples. The most obvious problem is that pineapples grow in warm, tropical regions and not everybody lives in a warm, tropical climate. Plants and animals grow more efficiently in different places and conditions, so it’s crucial to think about geographical context before implementing a new practice. Yes, plants and animals have the ability to adapt to your geographical context generation after generation through epigenetics, but let’s think broadly here. Operations in regions that receive 10 inches of rain annually have a much different context than operations that receive 40 inches of rain annually. Similarly, average temperature throughout the year plays an important role in, for example, choosing whether to plant more cool-season or warm-season cover crops. Don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole just because it worked somewhere else.

Spiritual Context

Spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean religion. To me, a person’s spirituality can largely be defined by these two questions: Why do you do what you do? Where do you go to determine what you ought to do and what you ought not do? These are important questions that can lead to some pretty important answers. What we believe deep down affects our decision-making process whether we’re aware of it or not. Therefore, it’s important to try and understand what those deeply held beliefs are and how tightly we hold them. For example, do you believe the Bible speaks very clearly to the fact that humans were given dominion over the land and all the animals, or does your religion teach that animals are sacred and humans should be vegetarian? What if you don’t really know what you believe? These are all valid answers. Realize that your regenerative journey is more likely to be successful and fulfilling long-term if decisions are made that align with your spiritual context.