Organic Soil Health Education Online Course and Resources for the Southern SARE Region Farmers and Ranchers

Final report for EDS20-17

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2020: $49,882.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipients: Organic Farming Research Foundation; NCAT
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Brise Tencer
Organic Farming Research Foundation
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Project Information


The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and key partners, including the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG), University of Kentucky, and Tuskegee University, propose training and outreach to farmers and ranchers in the Southern region to increase their knowledge, understanding, decision making skills, and practical application of soil health practices. By improving soil health, producers can enhance their productivity and profitability, optimize on-farm resource use efficiency, protect soil and water resources, mitigate climate change effects, and protect the health and safety of those involved in food and farm systems.

Our goal is to provide direct training based on the Soil Health and Organic Farming series of guidebooks developed during 2017-19 by OFRF and other organic research resources, which will be tailored toSouthern region climates, soils, pest pressures, and production systems. Our primary audience will be organic producers, especially minority, new, and transitioning farmers; however, the information will be applicable to all production systems.

We propose offering a live training course in conjunction with the 2021 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference to provide scientifically based practices that build soil health, and address research needs of organic farmers in the Southern U.S. Topics will include: crop rotation, cover crop selection and management, organic amendments, integrated systems of practices, nutrient cycling and management, the roles of soil organisms in nutrient cycling and plant protection, soil friendly approaches to tillage and weed management, water quality and water use efficiency in relation to soil health, and the potential role of crop cultivar genetics in supporting best soil health practices. Additional topics may be selected based on input from Southern region farmers and service providers regarding the specific soil health challenges and best practices for the region. The training course will include ample time for questions and answers, dialogue, and information exchange to point the way to effective new soil health strategies.

Participants will be surveyed to assess the value of the information presented, changes in their understanding of soil health practices, and how they intend to use knowledge gained to improve their farming or ranching operations.

OFRF will develop a Southern Region Soil Health Guidebook that will serve as the primary text for the short course. This guidebook will address the Southern region’s soil health challenges, weed and disease pressures, and producer needs and priorities.

OFRF will develop an online portal that includes recorded course segments, the guidebook, and other resources. OFRF makes all educational tools, webinars, and publications available freely online and tracks downloads and website activity to evaluate impact and use.

At the beginning of the project, OFRF will convene an Advisory Committee (AC) of farmers, ranchers, researchers, and extension professionals from across the Southern region. The AC will meet periodically to provide support on the project through feedback on the course, development of materials, facilitating aspects of the course and webinar, and ensuring relevance to Southern region producers, as well as scientific merit.

Project Objectives:

1) Provide practical and adoptable soil health information specific to the Southern region’s soils, climates, farming and ranching systems, and cultural practices.

2) Deliver scientific findings that are not readily available to producers in a format that is easily understood and applicable for on-­farm use.

3) Explain the role of soil management in building healthy soils, mitigating aspects of climate change, and protecting soil from erosion or degradation.

4) Help farmers develop an understanding of how improving soil health will lead to improved net economic returns.

5) Increase producer access to and utilization of science-based soil health information resources via and regional partner outreach sites.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • John Bell - Producer
  • Bryan Hager - Producer
  • Krista Jacobsen (Educator and Researcher)
  • Krista Jacobsen (Educator and Researcher)
  • Kokoasse Kpomblekou (Educator and Researcher)
  • Kokoasse Kpomblekou (Educator and Researcher)
  • Emily Oakley - Producer
  • Shawn Jadrnicek - Producer
  • Keith Richards
  • Brian Geier - Producer
  • Elizabeth Tobey - Producer


Educational approach:

OFRF is using virtual strategies to engage and help educate farmers.  We are using farmer experiences as the primary educator by sharing case studies, Q&A's with farmers, and getting grower input in the development of our course.  With this project, we have developed a guidebook, webinar, and online course.  The webinar was used as a way to identify additional soil related topics to address in our online course and future work.



Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Other educational activities: Publishing of Guidebook and online course.

Participation Summary:

720 Farmers participated
37 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

OFRF published the guidebook, Building Healthy Living Soils for Successful Organic Farming in the Southern Region in March 2021. The guidebook was shared using a multi-pronged approach including listservs (ATTRA, SARE, and others), as well as press releases, and it is available for download on SARE’s website in addition to OFRF’s website. So far the guidebook has 862 downloads from OFRF’s site and was featured multiple times in OFRF's monthly e-newsletter, which is disseminated to a list of over 14,000 farmers and stakeholders. The guidebook includes the most recent soil building research for a variety of soils typical to different regions in the South.  It also includes case studies with organic farmers all over the Southern SARE region.  The guidebook will serve as a text book to the online course which OFRF is currently designing. 

OFRF presented a webinar on January 21, 2021 entitled Reducing Production Risks through Organic Soil Health Practices for the South in partnership with eOrganics, and Emily Oakley of Three Springs Farm.  There were 71 attendees on the webinar. Questions and discussion at the end of the webinar were noted and were addressed in the online course design.  The archived version of this webinar has been viewed 1,215 times. OFRF utilized the guidebook and feedback to create and launch an online course in 2022.

In late 2022, OFRF released an online course, Soil Health Strategies for the Southern Region. This self-directed course dives into the application of organic soil health principles through a series of practical modules with concepts and strategies, illustrated by innovative farmer stories. Course participants will also find resources for deeper dives into soil health topics, descriptions of the inherent properties of soil types commonly found in the South, and snapshots of the latest soil health research being conducted in the region.

Healthy, living soils provide the foundation for successful and profitable organic farming and ranching. This new course will help the region’s current and aspiring organic producers develop effective, site-specific soil health management strategies that support successful, resilient enterprises. The entire course was made available for free as of December, 2022.

Learning Outcomes

60 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Reduce inputs

  • Build soil health

  • Improve growing of specialty crops

Project Outcomes

45 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
7 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The resources OFRF created are full of well-researched practices that can greatly improve soil health while considering the diverse soil types in the South. Both the guidebook and first webinar helped OFRF develop a strong foundation for the new soil health course.  All of the resources that we committed to producing and disseminating are completed and are free and available online for any farmer to access.  

With respect to the Soil Health Guidebook, the number of downloads equate to more than one download per day since it was released, indicating that the resource is extremely useful to producers in the South who are interested in building soil health and adopting sustainable practices. After our webinar we received the following email from an attendee: "You are such an inspiration to farmers, Mark!  This project is the ideal example of how farmers can receive useful, pragmatic, and digestible information that will make a real difference on their farms." 

Additionally, it is important to highlight that 71% of those who have taken the free online course, to-date, identify as beginning farmers (less than 10 years farming), and more than half are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color  (BIPOC). This means that our project outcome of providing useful training and practical tools to farmers in the Southern region is not only helping experienced growers, but also providing training to prepare the next generation of beginning and BIPOC farmers.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.