Helping farmers understand their soil

BC Farmland

Context and questions

Healthy soil is an important part of farming – crops need the right amount of nutrients to grow. Too few nutrients can contribute to low yields and poor-quality crops, but too many nutrients in the soil can impact water quality and lead to run-off and pollution.

The Ministry of Agriculture engaged the Service Design Team to help understand how farmers monitor and manage their soils, and to identify opportunities for the Ministry to provide soil management resources and support. With new environmental regulations around soil management pending, the research aimed to provide farmers with the support and resources they needed.

Our approach

The Service Design Team worked with Ministry of Agriculture staff to engage farmers and farming consultants to understand their knowledge, needs, challenges, and experiences with soil management.  

  1. Getting out on the farm. Through in-person interviews, attendance at training sessions, and on site-farm visits, the project team highlighted the sector-specific context and considerations of soil management and the varying levels of familiarity with soil management. The team also provided insights into existing soil management educational materials and opportunities for further development or revision.
  2. Calculating nutrient levels. The project team tested a prototype online calculator to help farmers record and calculate the nutrients in their soil. Farmers were able to enter the levels of key soil nutrients like phosphate and nitrogen into the calculator, then calculate the amount of fertilizer their crops would require – or the amount of nutrients that would need to be removed from the soil to meet environmental regulations and prevent pollution. This in-person testing showcased the learning opportunities related to improved understanding of soil management, as well as the usability of the calculator itself.

Outcomes that matter

Important research. After two rounds of interviews and prototype testing with farmers, the Ministry had a clearer picture of how to support farmers with their soil management. The service design process highlighted the need for engaging with farmers when designing informational resources; the research showed that the calculator was a useful tool to help farmers monitor and manage the nutrients in their soils, but it needed to be a part of a larger education and outreach program.

Hit the ground running. As a result of working with the Service Design Team, the Ministry was able to “hit the ground running” when it moved into the technical build of the online calculator and other resources. The project team worked at the Continuous Service Improvement Lab on the technical builds and created a roadmap of activities and actions to support the development of these resources – from brochures, to website information and the calculator.

Ongoing impact. User research helped define the technical requirements for farmers to use the calculator, as well as its design and interface. In addition, this work produced a list of design principles that the Ministry has been using when developing other engagement and educational resources.


Nutrient Management Calculator

Nutrient Management Planning – Design Principles (Internal Document)

RoadMap (Internal Document)