small farms weak links in soil liebigs law of the minimum feature

Tracking Down Your Weak Link

Liebig’s law of the minimum


Many growers are not familiar with Justus von Liebig. Liebig was a German scientist who lived from 1803-1873. His major contribution to the plant science world is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. His law states that plant yield is proportional to the amount of the most limiting nutrient. Whichever nutrient it may be.

Another way to say it is that growth is controlled by the scarcest resource. (

A barrel illustration helps us visually see examples of this concept. If you have a nutrient that is lower than it needs to be, adjusting the single nutrient will allow for a greater holding capacity. But once that individual nutrient is no longer the limiting factor, another will need to be addressed. This principle holds true for all soils. Fertility is not limited to N-P-K alone. Oftentimes a higher yield can be achieved by adding the nutrient that is lacking even if the nutrient isn’t a high percentage of your soil structure. In the case of Molybdenum, very little is needed in the soil. But it is essential for plant growth. If Molybdenum isn’t present at all, you could likely have a better yield increase by adding a small amount of Moly rather than another nutrient. In other words, Your soil is only as healthy as its weakest link.

Beyond the Soil

This principle is particularly true as it relates to your farm beyond the soil. Imagine a farm that verified the single limiting factor each month and began to put systems in place to help address the limiting factors. This practice could exponentially increase the farm’s capacity.  What are the weak links in your farm?

Top 5 weak links in small farms:

  1. Sales
  2. Production/ harvest
    • Too much effort
    • No clear production plan
    • Poor farming practices
  3. Time
    • Efficient systems are not present
    • Time on enterprises that aren’t profitable
    • Simply too much talk and not enough work
  1. Comradery or fun isn’t there- Team dynamics are so vital (especially through stressful seasons. If staff aren’t getting compensated financially or the dynamic is toxic teams can never perform)
  1. Limiting resource base
    • Water
    • Soil
    • Infrastructure

Your next steps…

What would happen to your farm financially if you were continually able to verify and “fill” the gap to help bring your farm’s capacity to the next level? Take some time to write down areas that you are lacking on your farm. Then begin trying to figure out corrections to these limiting factors. You might be one of the limiting factors on your farm. Maybe you need to onboard a member to your team to fill in the gaps.

I hope this helped spark and encourage you to get out there and farm. 

Happy Growing

To learn more about Justus von Liebig, see:

  • C.A. Brown. 1942. “Justus von Liebig–Man and teacher.” and “Liebig and the Law of the Minimum”in: Liebig and After Liebig: A century of progress in agricultural chemistry. Am. Assoc. Adv. Sci. The Science Press Printing Co., Lancaster, PA.