VESS – Visual evaluation of soil

Back in 2007, soil scientist Bruce Ball and his collaborators published a research paper on VESS – Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure [1] – and released a two page summary of the methods for anyone to use, free of any charge. The two-pager was printed on the back and front of quality paper, which was then laminated to form a durable sheet that could be taken out to the field as a guide and reference to quickly estimate soil health.

Recently, the Living Field editor was working with people creating an exhibition on regenerative farming to be held later in 2024 at a museum in the Tay Catchment. Questions around good and bad soils came up – was it possible to tell the difference between them without laboratory analysis, and were photographic guides available to illustrate soil quality for visitors to the exhibition?

VESS came to mind, since, as is evident from the reproduction below, it depicts soils of different quality. And Bruce was the obvious person to contact for guidance and photographs.

Plate 1. The two-page VESS guide to soil structure [1].

VESS is an example of scientific research condensing a great deal of technical information into an easy-to-use practical guide. Intended users were agronomists and farmers, and indeed anyone who wanted to learn a bit more about agricultural or garden soil.

Here are two contrasting images of the same medium-textured soil. One under woodland (left) has very good soil structure with many roots. The other under cereal cropping nearby (right) contains compacted clods below a fairly good structured surface layer. The VESS guide indicates for each soil the likely degree of pore space through which roots could penetrate the medium to extract nutrients and water.

Plate 2. Two soils ready for Visual Evaluation, left from a woodland, right from a cereal field.

Since its initial publication, VESS has travelled to other parts of the world, including the Amazon Basin [2]. It is being adapted and trialled for new soils and regions, contributing to our understanding of global soil health.

New Book : Healing soil

Continuing his aim to bring the world of soils to non-scientists, Bruce has recently (2022) published a book titled Healing Soil – How soil health will save the planet and us [3]. The author writes:

“This book is a journey that explores the importance of our soil to our world and humanity and the connection that can be found between soil and both of these. Each of the three parts of the book contains a series of short illustrated items spotlighting a key way that soil contributes to the health of ourselves, our society and our planet. The items are illustrated either by artworks that I have created or by photographs to show the interplay between the fate of the soil and the fate of our world – from all of humanity down to the way we live our individual lives.”

Below are two examples of Bruce’s illustrations in the book.

Soil greening power. Acrylic on board. The seed in the centre produces its seedling by the greening power of soil fertility thrusting from below.

References | links

[1] Ball BC, Batey T, Munkholm LJ (2007) Field assessment of soil structural quality – a development of the Peerlkamp test. Soil Use and Management 23, 329-337.

[2] Rachel M.L. Guimarães, Afrânio F. Neves Junior, Wellington G. Silva, Craig D. Rogers, Bruce C. Ball, Célia R. Montes, Bruno F.F. Pereira. (2017) The merits of the Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure method (VESS) for assessing soil physical quality in the remote, undeveloped regions of the Amazon basin. Soil and Tillage Research 173, 75-82,

[3] Ball BC (2022) Healing soil – how soil health will save the planet and us. Published by Bruce Ball, Roslin, Midlothian, UK and distributed by Kindle Direct Publishing Services, Amazon, Seattle, Washington, USA. Ed: search ‘author’ and ‘title’ to find web sites for online purchase.

A World of Soil for Healing People and Planet Earth. Mixed media on paper. In the same way that soil encircles the World, when humans nurture soil-like properties they can work in unity to sustain life on Earth.


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Ed: many thanks to Bruce for sharing his knowledge of soils. His book [3] contains many striking illustrations that link this thin, life-sustaining layer to the future of all people.

Bread Festival – St Monan’s

At the Bowhouse, St Monan’s Fife – the first Scottish Real Bread Festival – 25 February 2023 hosted by Scotland the Bread. The Living Field went to see what was happening.

Well … you can’t grow bread wheats in Scotland they say. But on this day Scotland the Bread [1] hosted the first Scottish Real Bread Festival [2]. The venue – at the Bowhouse, St Monans, Fife [3] – was packed with people seeing, selling, eating and debating flour and bread grown, milled and baked locally.

There were presentations and discussion through of the day, people sitting on hay bales, listening and asking.

Earlier, bakers had entered their loaves in the bread contest. A panel of experts had made a decision and the winners were announced and awarded. The loaves were all laid out on a table and given away at the end of the day.

At the first Scottish Real Bread Festival, Bowhouse at St Monans Fife – baked bread loaves and locally grown wheat.

Scotland the Bread‘s own flour, milled from local wheat landraces, was on sale ….. and went like hot loaves.Some sheaves of bread-wheat landraces were on display (lower images above), grown locally in the soil and climate of Fife. The plants are much taller than modern wheat varieties – due to the length of stems or ‘straw’ [4].

Long straw was once valued as a base for rope and string or used regularly in craftwork to make home decorations. Something Corny [5], based in Aberdeenshire, gave demonstrations and workshops through the day. The photos below shows some of their raw materials and a finished wall hanging.

Landrace wheat (left), a bundle of stems (lower) and an example of craftwork by Something Corny at the first Scottish Real Bread Festival.

Barley is rarely used in bread today but was once widely eaten in Scotland as a flatbread or bannock. Its use in food has been promoted by the Living Field for some years [6]. It’s a nutritious corn. And people from the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen were present to talk about their research on barley landraces in human health and nutrition [7].

One of their posters described how a variety of barley from Tibet – a black barley – was being hybridised with other varieties and landraces at the James Hutton Institute. Tibet and its hybrids are high in fibre and miconutrients, and also in beta-glucan which may lower cholesterol.

Tibet barley in the Living Field Garden: ears are yellow-green at first then darken at maturity; and as in most landraces and unimproved varieties, Tibet’s ears do not mature all at the same time.

The organisers and hosts put on a great show, well attended and well appreciated. Here’s hoping that milling and baking with local wheat grows and thrives.

Links and further information

[1] Scotland the Bread: local grains, cereal landraces, milling for flour, baking, community, food, campaigning for healthy, nutritious bread.

[2] Scottish Real Bread Festival: see Sustain at Scottish Real Bread Festival and Championship 2023 and Real Bread Week.

[3] BowhouseConnecting you to your local produce – a venue in St Monans Fife.

[4] The heights of landrace wheat and modern wheat are compared on the Living Field’s Cereals page. Ed: it looks like the long stems in the photograph above were tied with old-style, orange baler twine – brings back memories of sunburn and sore backs from lifting those small rectangular bales before the big round ones became standard!

[5] Elaine Lindsay practices and teaches straw work at Something Corny based at Inverurie, Aberdeenshire – check the online workshops.

[6] The Living Field has long promoted the use of flour from locally grown grains – mainly oats and barley – in flatbreads and other foods: see Bere bannocks, Bere scones, Bere battered fish, Peasemeal Beremeal Oatmeal, for bread made with barley and insects Bere and Cricket, and for further links to barley landraces The Bere line – rhymes with hairline.

[7] The Rowett Institute Aberdeen: Black barley study. The Rowett have also produced a booklet on recipes made with oats and barley.

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