Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

The .gov means it’s official.
Federal government websites always use a .gov or .mil domain. Before sharing sensitive information online, make sure you’re on a .gov or .mil site by inspecting your browser’s address (or “location”) bar.

SSL

This site is also protected by an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate that’s been signed by the U.S. government. The https:// means all transmitted data is encrypted — in other words, any information or browsing history that you provide is transmitted securely.

Soil Health

Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Creating and maintaining a healthy soil is more than just reducing erosion. The benefits of a healthy soil go far beyond crop production.

Five Soil Health Principles of NRCS

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified four principles for improving soil health and sustainability:

  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.
  5. Integrate livestock to recycle nutrients and increase plant diversity.

A healthy soil has good water infiltration and retention. The biological activity within the soil increases soil fertility and helps build good soil structure. These things reduce the need for expensive inputs and increase plant resilience to drought, pests and intense rains.

Agroforestry’s Role in Soil Health

Because agroforestry systems include trees and shrubs, as well as other perennial vegetation, they support each of the four soil health principles. Incorporating trees and shrubs into annual cropping systems increases root diversity that feeds the living organisms within the soil. Perennial plants often require less soil disturbance and have roots growing through a greater part of the year. Perennial living cover also helps protect the soil from wind and water erosion which helps in building and maintaining good soil structure.

Soil health diagram showing the interrelationships of windbreaks upon crops soil health factors.
The influence of trees in agroforestry systems impact soil health over a greater area than just where their roots grow. (USDA National Agroforestry Center illustration)

Agroforestry systems can complement other practices that improve soil health like cover crops, no or low till, nutrient management, or crop rotation. These practices can work together to provide the best protection for your soil. They also can support one another so that if one fails, others are still in place. For example, if a cover crop fails to get well established because of drought or frost, agroforestry systems still provide living cover on the landscape.

Agroforestry is not the only way to create and maintain healthy soil, but agroforestry supports soil health and more.

Information Sheets

  • Infosheet

    publication cover

    Can Windbreaks Benefit Your Soil Health Management System?

    DownloadOrder
  • Infosheet

    publication cover

    Can Alley Cropping Support Soil Health?

    DownloadOrder
  • Infosheet

    publication cover

    Can Windbreaks Help With Organic Farming?

    DownloadOrder

Brochures

    Inside Agroforestry

      Agroforestry Notes

      • Agroforestry Note

        publication cover

        Windbreak Density: Rules Of Thumb For Design

        Download

      Research

      • Research

        publication cover

        Enhancing Ecosystem Services: Designing For Multifunctionality

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Creatively Communicating Conservation Complexity

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Developing And Extending Sustainable Agriculture: A New Social Contract

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Precision Conservation In North America

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Computer-based Tools For Decision Support In Agroforestry: Current State And Future Needs

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Alteration Of Soil Water Content Consequent To Root-pruning At A Windbreak/crop Interface In Nebraska, USA

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Ecobelts: Reconnecting Agriculture And Communities - Case Studies

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Ecobelts: Reconnecting Agriculture And Communities

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        Evaluation Of A Collaborative Model: A Case Study Analysis Of Watershed Planning In The Intermountain West

        Download
      • Research

        publication cover

        An Ecological Foundation For Temperate Agroforestry

        Download

      More Publications

        https://www.fs.usda.gov/nac/topics/soil-health.php