Participatory website development for soil quality education and assessment to improve agroecosystem management

Final Report for ENC00-050

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2000: $53,536.84
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Federal Funds: $53,678.30
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $29,160.00
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Susan Andrews
USDA-ARS NSTL
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Project Information

Abstract:

An educational website was developed to help agricultural professionals use soil quality concepts to achieve their sustainable agriculture goals. Its temporary URL is: http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWebsite/home.htm. Website content, which includes an educational section, a management practices and problems section, a resources section, and an assessment-tools section, reflects needs identified by farmers, educators, and farm advisors from IA and IL during focus groups. Additional resources are being sought to respond to needs identified by participants in a usability test, and to expand the audience for the site by partnering with appropriate long-term hosts and incorporating the tools section of the site into the National Soils Research Program 202 of USDA-ARS.

Project Objectives:

Our objective was to develop a web resource that would help farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) field personnel, crop consultants, and extension staff develop a fuller understanding of soil quality and help them achieve their sustainable agriculture goals. Our principle performance target is the successful development of an Internet web site for soil quality education and assessment that is useful and used.

Our initial objectives were to:
1. Ask land managers, NRCS field personnel, and extension agents to respond critically to soil-quality resources and express their informational needs in a one-and-a-half-day work session that would guide the development of the web site.
2. Provide on the web site extensive educational materials on soil quality and its relationship to soil function and sustainable agriculture.
3. Provide on the web site interactive soil-quality assessment techniques after they have been adapted based on work-session input.

Introduction:

Sustainable agriculture usually means managing for economic, social, and environmental goals (Miller & Wali, 1995). Because of these multiple goals, managers of sustainable agroecosystems require extensive information, the ability to interpret it, and the tools to help them adapt generalized principles to their specific systems. We proposed to develop an Internet web site that provides these services in relationship to soil quality.

Proper soil management is one of the most important aspects of agroecosystem sustainability. Agricultural practices and soil amendments can affect soil functions leading to changes in crop productivity, surface and ground water quality, erosion rates, and others (Doran & Parkin, 1994). Assessing soil quality or the “capacity of the soil to function” (Karlen, et al., 1997) allows producers and educators to recognize the early warning signs of these effects and thereby make informed decisions about the sustainability of their management practices.

Unfortunately, the large number of measurable soil properties actually represents a management dilemma. It’s difficult to know what tests to perform and how to interpret them. To help solve this problem, the Illinois Soil Quality Initiative (ISQI) worked with farmer cooperators and a board of soil stakeholders to develop accurate, practical, and meaningful measures of soil that farmers and land managers could incorporate into strategies to sustain the resource over the long term. These interactions led to the following conclusions: 1) Definitions of soil quality—and beliefs about which aspects of soil quality are most important—vary widely, making it inadvisable in practical terms to think of “soil quality” as a single, inclusive concept. 2) Farmers and other land managers need to relate changes in soil practices to specific management choices. 3) Changes in soil properties must be related to economic and environmental outcomes. 4) Farmers have limited interest in actually collecting soil quality data; their primary interest is in the interpretation of data or information about soil. Based on feedback received from farmers, it was concluded that a flexible-assessment approach that was supported by software could satisfy many of their requests.

While many techniques currently exist for assessing soil properties, only recently has work focused on gathering a suite of soil-test indicators to assess overall soil quality. For example, the Soil Quality Test Kit, developed by the USDA–Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and NRCS Soil Quality Institute, is an educational management tool kit that allows users to take in-field estimates of individual soil indicators. More recently, the agencies developed a regionally specific score sheet that integrates test scores to assess the overall impact of management practices on soil quality. Interpretations differ depending on climate, soil type, and crops grown. Additionally, the end-user can choose the score sheet interpretation that most accurately reflects his or her management goals. Preliminary evaluations of Test Kit Score sheet results from several regions suggest that they accurately reflect overall soil quality (Andrews, 1999).

Other soil quality assessment approaches might depend on laboratory-based tests of soil indicators. Efforts are ongoing to select and develop representative and meaningful indicators, to combine indicators into location-specific indices of soil quality, and to use these indices to assess agricultural management practices (Wander & Bollero, 1999; Hussain, et al., 1998). Most of the tested soil quality indices appear to be effective monitors of sustainable soil management. Transferability of these indices to multiple sites has been tested using data from Georgia, California, and Iowa (Karlen, 1999; Andrews, 1998). These results suggest that a flexible framework allows indices to be tailored to local conditions, specific management practices, and users’ goals and definitions.

The fastest and cheapest method for making user-specific assessment tools widely available is through the Internet. A recent survey by the National Agriculture Statistics Service (1999) found that the percentage of farmers using the Internet jumped from 13% in 1997 to 29% in 1999. Use of the Internet for distance learning is gaining widespread popularity in the United States (Swan, 1995), and management-decision tools will become increasingly prevalent (Smith, 1998). For example, one can currently find assessment tools for optimizing pesticide applications (http://www.eece.ksu.edu/-starret/KTURF) and for simulating plant growth under different plant, site, and management conditions (http://th190-50.agn.uiuc.edu/).

For land managers in New Zealand, an Internet soil quality-assessment tool already exists. The Landcare Research group website (http://sindi.landcare.cri.nz/soilquality/soilintro2000.htm) asks the user to chose the soil type and management type (crop, pasture, or forest) of interest, and to enter common soil-test results. Based on these inputs, the index calculates either a relative rating of soil quality against other New Zealand sites having the same soil type or compares the site’s soil quality against the general needs for the selected management type. No such Internet tool currently exists for land managers in the United States. Such a tool would aid in the assessment of soil quality and in the practice of sustainable agroecosystem management.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Pete Boysen
  • Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant
  • Craig Ditzler
  • Doug Karlen
  • Ann Lewandowski
  • Todd Nissen
  • Ellen Phillips
  • Cathy Seybold
  • Mike Sucik
  • Gerry Walter
  • Michelle Wander

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Objective 1. Ask land managers, NRCS field personnel, and extension agents to respond critically to soil-quality resources, express their informational needs, and guide the development of the web site.

The project team conducted a 1 1/2-day work session in Moline, IL on September 7-8, 2000, including representatives of the target audience for the web site. Work session participants, from Illinois and Iowa, included 30 NRCS state and field office staff, cooperative extension and conservation district personnel, independent and corporate crop advisors, and farmers. A brief introductory series of presentations on soil quality was given before a series of facilitated focus groups were held. Focus groups were separated by use groups (farmers, NRCS, Extension, and educators), and addressed questions relating to information needs, soil quality content, web site format, and management tools. Facilitator notes and taped transcripts were used to generate summaries. More information, including a summary of outcomes, is presented on the web site at: http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site /mainpage_mission.htm

A subset of users was asked to conduct a site usability test in March-April 2002. Participants included four NRCS, one state department of agriculture, four Extension, two farmers, and one graduate student. Tests were administered by team members. The 12 test subjects included representatives of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension Service, farmers, state department of agriculture, and students. Subjects completed a series of set tasks using the web site on their own work computer and environment. A team member observed how they used the site, and noted problem areas and their level of success at completing the tasks. A brief interview followed.

Evaluative and feedback components have been programmed into the web site. Included in the web site are several open-ended, voluntary surveys evaluating each section of the web site. Plans are to add “virtual suggestions” and “inquires” sections. The assessment tools section survey (draft version) can be viewed at http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site /Feedback/assessToolFeedback.htm

Objective 2. Provide on the web site extensive educational materials on soil quality and its relationship to soil function and sustainable agriculture.

Questions about content and format of educational materials were included in the Moline workshop and usability tests; they guided our selection of medium and determined our focus. Resource materials providing educational and management content included in the site were collected from existing resources, to the extent possible, and adapted for inclusion according to a management template designed by extension team members. The content developed for a workshop “Soil, the Wealth of Illinois” held in Champaign, provided the first outline for the educational component. Input from the work sessions was used to structure and prioritize content development. Significant additions to management pages were made by Todd Nissen and Ann Lewandowski. Nevertheless, downloadable resource materials (PDF and slide sets) obtained from individuals working in the soil quality arena have already been posted. Team members designed a means to upload educational resources (i.e., slides sets, fact sheets, reports) and contact information for a network facilitation page according to our templates for users to contribute interactively. Materials would be available on the appropriate web site pages, once checked for content by the webmaster. However, this feature requires some additional programming to make this fully functional. A strategy to extend this feature to contributions to management practices, indicator information, and soil history sections was outlined but not implemented because of limited funding.

Objective 3. Provide on interactive soil-quality assessment techniques.

Initial objectives were to develop three assessment tools:
a) a score sheet interpreter to evaluate soil quality using in-field observations and measurements (supporting NRCS’ Soil Quality Test Kit);
b) an index of soil quality using laboratory analyses;
c) an agricultural sustainability index where users identify their own economic, social, and environmental indicators.

Work is near completion for two of the originally proposed assessment tools developed by Susan Andrews and others. The index of soil quality using laboratory analyses is fully functional (although some additional features still need to be added), and the Test Kit support tools are under construction. Links can be found to each of the tools (or their placeholders) and their descriptions on the assessment tools introduction page (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site /ToolsSection/mainpage_assessment.html). In addition, this page also links to guidelines for taking samples and designing experiments, why you might evaluate soil quality, and general information on soil quality assessment tools. Pages about individual indicators, including how to perform in-field tests and what the tests mean, are also under construction. (The indicator page templates can be accessed from within the soil quality index tool and from the soil functions page in the Soil Quality Basics section.) Although there was interest in having the assessment tools available in a downloadable format, this is not possible during the current funding cycle because it entails programming in different programming language (double the work). Faced with choosing between download and on-line versions, we opted to go with on-line versions because of the ability to generate dynamic links to supporting information in response to user input.

The Soil Quality Test Kit support tools and include tables, spreadsheets, and an adaptive management tool. Many group participants were concerned that the test kit was too time consuming. To help alleviate this concern, we have posted two tables that suggest the appropriate subset of Kit tests to perform depending on user’s region and management goals. To further ease the time and effort needed to use the Kit, the web site offers a series of spreadsheets that automatically perform the necessary calculations for each Kit test. These spreadsheets are posted on the web site, but still require some work. The Kit score sheet tool will offer site-specific interpretations for the Kit test results, which can be entered directly or taken from the calculator.

Outreach and Publications

Andrews, S.S. 2002. A soil quality framework to evaluate management systems: A tool to assess the effects on soil functions. Invited Seminar for the Horticulture and Soils Departments, Cornell University. Ithaca, NY. December 9, 2002.

Andrews, S.S., D.L. Karlen, C.B. Flora, M.M. Wander, T.M. Nissen, J.P. Mitchell. 2002. The need for and attempts at relating soil quality assessment to economic return. Agronomy abstracts. Invited Symposium Paper. Soil Science Society of America. Indianapolis, IN. November 12, 2002.

Andrews, S.S. 2002. A framework for soil quality assessment: R&D toward a quantitative tool for adaptive management. Workshop for ARS Scientists (where the web site was introduced, used, and critically evaluated.) Ames, IA. August 21-23, 2002.

Andrews, S.S., Wander, M.M., Nissen, T.M, Lewandowski, A., Phillips, E., Karlen, D.L. 2001. Introduction to the soil quality website. Invited Presentation for the Soil Science Society of American S-3 Working Group on Soil Quality. Charlotte, N.C., October 21, 2001.

Related Publications
Andrews, S. S., D. L. Karlen, and J. P. Mitchell. 2002. A comparison of soil quality indexing methods for vegetable production systems in northern California. Agricultural Ecosystems & Environment 90:25-45.

Andrews, S. S., C. B. Flora, J. P. Mitchell, and D. L. Karlen. 2003. Farmers’ perceptions and acceptance of soil quality indices. Geoderma 114:187-213.

Wander, M.M., G. Walter, T.M. Nissen, G.A. Bollero, S.S. Andrews and D. Cavanaugh-Grant. 2002. Soil quality: Science and process. Agronomy Journal. 96:23-33.

Outcomes and impacts:

Objective 1. Moline Work Sessions and Usability

The first half-day of the work session was devoted to providing information to the participants about the project. This included an overview of current ideas for the site and a discussion about the various definitions of soil quality (SQ). That evening, participants had the option of visiting an Illinois extension computer lab where they could visit other SQ-related web sites or attend a viewing of several SQ-related videos. On the second day, work session attendees participated in focus groups, where they provided feedback on the ideas presented the previous day and contributed their own ideas for the web site.

During the morning focus groups, participants were divided by profession into the broad categories listed above. The participants in all groups were asked specific questions about how they would use the site and how they would like the site to be organized. The most common uses were to gather general information about SQ and its importance, to find educational support materials, and to assess SQ at benchmark sites or one’s own farm. Those looking for educational support materials were thinking about audiences ranging from K-12 students, to homeowners, farmers, and policy makers. Downloadable slide sets, video clips, and teaching modules were mentioned frequently as desirable support materials. Many people suggested including a frequently asked questions (FAQs) section. The farmer group even discussed the possibility of a chat room on the site. All groups liked the idea of this site being a central link for SQ information, containing many links to other sites. Another type of link discussed was to provide names of support professionals. The groups discussed many good ideas about how to maximize the usefulness of the site.

There was consensus that educational materials should tie SQ to management practices and common problems. Along with this link to practices, some participants were interested in seeing cost/benefit comparisons of alternative practices. This comparison might include economic outcomes, social implications, and time expectations. There was some interest in historical soil use, illustrating the difference between inherent and dynamic soil quality. Many people were interested in information about SQ indicators, both how to perform the tests and how to interpret them. It was often repeated by participants that information must be site- specific to be useful. There was discussion about accessing site-specific information by clicking on regions of a U.S. map. Participants want practical information that relates to their situation. They want this information to be basic and easy to understand, but also want to have the option to learn more about it.

There seemed to be some differences of opinion by profession about the usefulness of SQ assessment tools. Crop advisors and farmers seemed to be more interested in these options for the web site than agency personnel, who thought farmers would have little interest in this use. All groups wanted access to reference or benchmark data that would allow them see the effect of specific practices on SQ according to major soil groups. This feature of the web site, it was explained, would use research data and therefore would not be applicable in every situation. One potential use, mentioned by members from each group, was the “what if” scenario. This was described by users as the ability to either add hypothetical numbers or use research data to run the assessment tools. They felt this would give them ideas about how management practices might affect their SQ without actually performing their own tests. The members of the farmer group really like the proposed tools’ flexibility, which includes the ability for users to weight indicators according to individual preferences. Interest in using the assessment tools for site-specific assessment was limited primarily by the need for site-specific data. The general limitations voiced by the SWCD and Extension group, and echoed by the farmers, were lack of education, cost (of analyses or test equipment), and time (of sampling and data entry). Some NRCS participants thought farmers would want to collect their own data using the SQ test kit, but farmers said otherwise. They were more interested in paying consultants for these analyses. The farmer group was most enthusiastic about the sustainability tool, even though this was the only tool not yet scientifically tested. The other groups were much less interested in the sustainability tool. When asked about willingness to allow their SQ data to become part of the site’s database (using passwords and not names), the farmer group was particularly interested in comparing their SQ over time and to see what others are doing. Only one person (from the NRCS group) mentioned privacy concerns that could lead to unwanted regulation. Conversely, members from all groups talked about the need to link SQ assessment to existing programs like CRP.

In general, the comments from the four professional groups had more similarities than differences. One important difference did come up when economics was mentioned, as it was in every group. Members from all groups indicated an interest in linking SQ to economic outcomes or yield. Interestingly, members of the farmer group felt both long- and short-term economics were important while the advisor, extension, and agency representatives said that farmers only care about short-term economic gain. Differences were also highlighted when the groups talked about sharing information. The farmers said they willingly shared with (neighborly) neighbors, while the NRCS and advisor groups perceived farmers as more competitive and less willing to share information. Admittedly, the farmers who participated in the work session may not be representative of the majority of farmers. Many in this group were “early adopters” and/or organic growers. However, similar focus groups held with a greater number and variety of farmers in the Central Valley of California supported the Moline results. All of the Moline participants were interested in using the Internet for gathering work-related information. (This was a criterion for work session participation.) A recent NASS study showed that approximately 30% of farmers nationwide and in the Midwest use the Internet for their work.

The afternoon groups were very useful for summarizing the main points from the morning sessions and highlighting the similarities among the professional groups. This information was more detailed yet fully supported the morning’s feedback.

Results from the usability test addressed the look and clarity of specific pages, collected information on the time it took users to complete tasks, and solicited input on means for improvement. The responses of users ranged widely, and were sometimes conflicting, with requests that we include more and fewer graphics, for instance. Navigational and logic issues that were readily apparent were addressed with page consolidation and altered linkages. Suggestions that require more ambitious programming may be considered down the road when more resources are obtained.

A brief version of the focus group summary is posted on the web site at: http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/FocusGroupResults.htm. The full version can also be accessed from that page. We plan to submit a peer-reviewed paper analyzing the focus groups results to the Journal of Natural Resources Education in 2004. We are also preparing a paper on farmer uses of soil quality information and its relationship to economics, using results from the group in Moline, Illinois and the California groups, to be submitted to Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, and as a NRCS Technical Note. These results may also be helpful for the current plans for re-designing the NRCS Soil Survey database to include dynamic soil property information.

Objective 2: Education

Following the formatting suggestions of the focus group participants, the web site pages are arranged to make main points using easy-to-understand graphics or bulleted lists, but that also allow the more advanced user to follow links to more in-depth information. We have attempted to follow guidelines for site design to accommodate those with slow modems speeds or disabilities. Because interest in video material was lukewarm at best, we opted not do produce a stand-alone video but may still provide some clips on the site. The site uses a moderate amount of graphics to illustrate concepts and has many download options. To address concerns about site-specificity of information, clickable U.S. maps allow users to access regionally specific information in several sections of the web site. A plan to include a site-specific feature to the management practice pages was developed but was not implemented due to lack of additional programming funds. We have tried to broaden the scope of our audience to include high school students as well as professionals by following the advice of the focus group participants. However, we felt it was outside of the scope of our original proposal to also target homeowners, foresters, or policy makers at this point in the site’s development, as some suggested. Participants pointed out useful web sites are up to date, and thus have a continuing need for content development and updates to links.

As initially proposed, we have created background material on soil quality and sustainability concepts online in the Soil Quality Basics section of the site (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/EducationSection/mainpage_sq.htm). We also have downloadable versions, aimed at agricultural educators, for much of this material (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/ResourcesSection/EducationResources/mainpage_EDresource.htm). We have also begun filling in a glossary with links from pages using those terms (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/EducationSection/mainpage_glossary.htm).
In addition, the scope of the material in this section was significantly broadened as a result of the focus group comments. New features added include:
A page on the social costs and benefits of soil quality (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/EducationSection/mainpage_sq.htm);
a section of the history of management effects on soil quality, accessible by topic or region (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/EducationSection/History/mainpage_historysq.htm);
and a FAQ page including questions about relationships between soil quality and economics or yield (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/EducationSection/mainpage_faqsq.htm).
Some of these added items are still under development. For instance, we have solicited contributions from a variety of scientists for the history section.

During the focus groups, participants expressed interest in information about management practices that can improve soil quality. In response, an entire section on management options was added (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/ManagementSection/mainpage_manage.htm). It is currently divided into two subsections: practices and problems. If and when the site expands beyond the North Central region, we plan to place a clickable U.S. regional map on the introductory page, so users can access appropriate practices and common problems for their area. While the NCR is our primary focus, we hope to eventually cover the entire U.S. We are using the focus group results to choose which practices to include. These pages are under development but, according to the team-designed template, all will contain information on “how to” and “predicted outcomes” backed by research results. In addition to soil quality indicator results, outcomes will include economic comparisons, social implications, time expectations, and existing programs like CRP, when supporting research is available. Links to additional information will also be posted. The problems page lists indicators to test, possible causes, and corrective actions. We plan to add dynamic links from and to the appropriate individual practice pages, the management problems table, the indicator pages, and the assessment tools.

Because there was great interest in this web site being a “clearinghouse” for soil quality information, we decided to create an entire section of the site devoted to additional resources (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/ResourcesSection/mainpage_resource.htm). Some materials are downloadable while others have (or will be) converted to HTML and posted on the site. Many will be available in multiple formats. The basic structure of this section is posted on the site and many of the downloadable materials are currently available there. This is also true of the web links-to-related-sites page. The scientific references page is organized by topic and features links from other pages citing these works (http://129.186.1.36:8080/SoilQualityWeb site/References.htm). The professional list, intended as a networking tool suggested by focus group participants, will allow users to upload their contact information, specialty area, and region covered. The programming, forms, and database tables are needed for this utility are nearly complete. In the future, we would like to add a discussion feature to allow farmer-to-farmer or farmer-to-advisor discussion of problems, as brought up by some participants.

Objective 3. Index

The soil quality index is fully operational but some final features remain to be programmed. Some items that we would like to add as time allows include more indicator options, more graphical output options, the option for users to change indicator scoring or weighting, and a sign-in feature to allow users to save their data and/or share it with others.

The sustainability index was of interest to farmers but of little interest to other groups. Due to time constraints, this tool was given a relatively low priority and not further developed. The limited amount of validating research available contributed to this decision. Such a tool might be developed in the future. We are currently collaborating with ARS Simple Tools Team to make any such tool available through this site.
One unexpected outcome from the focus groups was participant interest in the option of using either hypothetical numbers or the data of others to run the assessment tools. This prompted two design changes to the tools. First, we added expected ranges for the indicators to facilitate entering sensible hypothetical data. Second (and much more work intensive), we have designed a soil quality research database. Within each tool, the user has the option to generate their own data, which includes hypothetical data or actual measures, or view reference data. The latter option will allow the user to search the database by region, soil type, practice, and/or indicator. The search will return best matches, for which the user can view data means, site-specific indicators scores (interpretations), or a calculated soil quality index, depending on the user’s preference. It will include a link to the full citation for the paper. Search results will also return links to the appropriate practice and indicator pages within the web site. The database was designed by team members and partially constructed but programming will require further funding.

An additional designed, but not yet programmed, feature will allow tool users generating their own data to save their soil test data for future use. This will allow return visitors to use the tool with a minimum of additional input. Also at sign-in, users will be given the option of making their data available for others to view (with name and exact location omitted). Because farmers in the focus groups were comfortable with saving their non-identifiable data for others to access, the database search tool will also be used to share on-farm data with other tool users. If this feature is well-used (and with additional funding), we could eventually construct maps for site visitors to see soil quality changes for land managed by tool users. This could also serve as an evaluation of the web site’s long-term impact.

Summary of Impacts

In support of the sustainable agriculture strategic plans of Illinois and Iowa, we anticipate that farmers, extension educators, and NRCS personnel using the web site will:

Learn basic principles of soil quality and soil function at the field, farm, and landscape scales.

Learn how to evaluate and choose management practices for changes to soil quality and agricultural sustainability.

Provide access to soil quality and sustainability teaching materials and resource professionals.

Make many of the quality educational materials that have been developed available.

Be equipped with tools to assess the effects of management practices on soil quality.

Help make these assessments become a regular part of the decision-making process.

Participants at the Moline work session echoed the collaborators’ belief that an interactive web site that seeks to both educate about and aid in the assessment of soil quality and agricultural integrity could be a major step toward promoting sustainable agroecosystem management. Measurable outcomes will be more apparent once the site is moved to a more accessible URL.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In support of the sustainable agriculture strategic plans of Illinois and Iowa, we anticipate that farmers, extension educators, and NRCS personnel using the web site will:

Learn basic principles of soil quality and soil function at the field, farm, and landscape scales.

Learn how to evaluate and choose management practices for changes to soil quality and agricultural sustainability,

Provide access to soil quality and sustainability teaching materials and resource professionals.

Make many of the quality educational materials that have been developed available.

Be equipped with tools to assess the effects of management practices on soil quality.

Help make these assessments become a regular part of the decision-making process.

Participants at the Moline work session echoed the collaborators’ belief that an interactive web site that seeks to both educate about and aid in the assessment of soil quality and agricultural integrity could be a major step toward promoting sustainable agroecosystem management. Measurable outcomes will be more apparent once the site is moved to a more accessible URL.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Even though participatory and networking efforts conducted as part of this effort accomplished outreach functions, the site’s prime function, which is to serve as a soil quality resource, will be achieved in coming years. The web site will be transferred from its current URL to a more visible address once programming revisions called for during the usability test are completed and a beta-test has been conducted. Currently, we are working to have established sites that address related topics add a link to our current URL. Users will encounter a notice that the site is up and that input is desired. Discussions are underway with the Soil and Water Conservation Society with the intent that they ultimately host and help maintain the site. Craig Cox, Executive Director of the SWCS, has agreed to help raise additional funds for programming. Their interest is two-fold — both in the tool (on the web or not), and in the web site as an addition within or as a sister site to their own. We are still ironing out the details, but it appears that the site’s permanent home will be on the SWCS server. Ann Lewandowski of the Soil Quality Institute has agreed to assist SWCS with webmaster/site upkeep duties.

Audiences in the USDA, NRCS, and scientific community have been exposed to this project through a variety of presentations and published abstracts. Interest in the indexing tool is growing most notably. The NRCS training course, “Soil Quality: Assessment and Applications for Field Staff,” cites the available tool and mentions the web site as a whole as a source of additional information. ARS has made the assessment tool part of their National Program and is backing further research.

Future Recommendations

As previously noted, the site has on-going programming, maintenance, and update needs that must be met. The focus groups gave us a lot of great information and verified the need for and interest in the content that is provided. However, by trying to accommodate many of the common themes that emerged, the project became larger than was initially envisioned in the two-year proposal. Also, because we were on a learning curve for web site programming, we did not budget nearly enough for programming services. If we had been able to afford professional programmers, much more progress would have been made.

By providing ongoing support for web sites, or maybe better, by providing continuity by hosting and maintaining information hubs that link PDP clients together, SARE can help establish a much needed clearinghouse.

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.