There are a multitude of approaches to evaluating soil health and the soil processes influenced by soil health. As the state of Vermont explores innovative programs that compensate farmers for soil health and associated ecosystem services, the selection of soil health indicators and quantification methods is a foundational first step that influences other aspects of program design. What is measured determines the ecosystem services that can be inferred, the accuracy of data that informs decisions, and programmatic transaction costs. Simply put, what is measured matters. The PES Working Group identified organic matter, bulk density, aggregate stability, greenhouse gas flux from the soil surface and soil biodiversity as the soil health indicators that would be most closely related to the desired ecosystem services, and contracted with UVM to provide more information on the measurement considerations for these indicators.
In this report, the available methods and costs of measurement for these soil health indicators are discussed in detail. In addition, modeling options are identified. Finally an index that could combine multiple soil health indicators is explored as an option. Overall, this foundational research identified the need for the PES program to integrate both soil health measurements with modeling to validate soil health. Costs for laboratory analysis and labor for these selected metrics were approximately $250 per field, and we identified three analytical laboratories that could provide the soil health analysis.
The contents of this report are intended to support decision-making on the part of the Vermont Soil Health and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group about what will be measured in a PES, but do not constrain the group from adding other metrics should they so desire. This decision must balance accuracy and complexity with the cost of measuring the best indicators of performance. These decisions are foundational to other aspects of PES program design.
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White, A. Darby, H., Dube, B., Sands, B., Faulkner, J., Albers, M., & Payne, M. (2021). Measuring ecosystem services from soil health. Vermont Payment for Ecosystem Services Technical Research Report #1. The University of Vermont.