Do farmers perceive a deficiency of soil organic matter? A European and farm level analysis

R. Hijbeek*, A. Cormont, G. Hazeu, L. Bechini, L. Zavattaro, B. Janssen, M. Werner, N. Schlatter, Gema Guzmán, J. Bijttebier, A.A. Pronk, M. van Eupen, M.K. van Ittersum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Agricultural soils with too little soil organic matter (SOM) content are characterized by fertility problems. A number of authors have tried to specify threshold values for SOM content to indicate what is ‘too little', ranging from 1 to 5%, below which yields may be affected. How much SOM content is sufficient, however, depends on a number of environmental factors. In addition, up to date farmers' perceptions were not included when developing thresholds. Therefore, this study focuses on the following three objectives: (1) to identify a risk indicator on SOM deficiency based on environmental factors and agricultural land use; (2) to test the risk indicator using farmers' perceptions and (3) to establish threshold values for SOM content based on farmers' perceptions. For objective 1, literature was reviewed on effects of environmental factors and land use on SOM deficiency. Findings were combined into nine options for a risk indicator on SOM deficiency, mapped at European scale. For objective 2, a farm survey was done among 1452 arable farmers in five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy). Associations between perceived deficiency of SOM by farmers and environmental factors, land use and the risk indicator were investigated. For objective 3, farmers' perceptions on SOM deficiency were related to the average SOM content of their fields. Mapping the risk indicator at European scale gives a high to very high risk of SOM deficiency for 7 to 37% of European agricultural land, mainly located in Southern and Eastern Europe. Of the farmers in our survey, 18% perceived a high to very high SOM deficiency. A weak correlation was found between the risk indicator and farmers' perceptions of SOM deficiency (0.15-0.18, Spearman's rank correlation). Stronger relations were found between separate environmental factors and perceived SOM deficiency. Apparently, having a more extreme environmental condition for one factor gives a higher chance of perceiving a deficiency of SOM than a combination of moderate environmental conditions. Based on farmers' perceptions threshold intervals for SOM content were established (sand: 1.2–4.7%, loam: 0.6–2.6% and clay: 1.0–2.4%). If policies on SOM management want to include benefits for productive capacity, targeting areas with a relatively high risk of SOM deficiency, more extreme environmental conditions or with very low SOM contents (below the given threshold intervals) seems most promising.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)390-403
JournalEcological Indicators
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Agriculture
  • Arable farming
  • Critical level
  • Crops
  • Europe
  • Farmers' perceptions
  • Land use
  • Productive capacity
  • Risk indicator
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Soil organic matter
  • SOM deficiency
  • Threshold value


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