From the Classroom to the Field: Advanced Soil Health Training for Illinois Ag Service Providers

Final report for ENC15-143

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2015: $74,602.00
Projected End Date: 03/30/2018
Grant Recipient: American Farmland Trust
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Jennifer Filipiak
Driftless Area Land Conservancy
Expand All

Project Information


Due to increased awareness of the benefits of well-managed soils, the agricultural and conservation communities are promoting “soil health.” Soil health is the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Traditionally, the focus has primarily been on the physical and chemical properties of the soil and the need to increase organic matter, reduce erosion and limit soil compaction. Biological aspects of soil have traditionally been overlooked or poorly understood. The goal of this project was to provide an in-depth and well-rounded training for Illinois Ag professionals that encompasses the full definition of soil health. Of an initial cadre of 33 trainees, 22 completed the 18-month program which consisted of six one and a half day trainings. Trainees include cover crop specialists, farmers, agricultural retailers, consultants from throughout Illinois, educators from the University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
The training program closely follows the one that was designed for the successful Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative and messaging/guidance developed by the NRCS Soil Health Division. The curriculum was designed by core working group of seven individuals from Illinois and Indiana.

Project Objectives:

Steering Committee  In the first quarter of the grant period, we formed a steering committee to help us develop training content, methods, and guide the project. We met in-person on November 10, 2015 to discuss purpose, format, and timing of the workshops, decided on the best approach for recruiting trainees, and discussed content for the first workshop. The steering committee met via met via conference call to provide input into the content and design of each workshop throughout the project. The members of the steering committee also regularly attended and contributed to the workshops.

Our steering committee originally included Barry Fisher, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Nick Goeser, National Corngrowers Association/Soil Health Partnership; Joel Gruver, Western Illinois University; Doug Hanson, ProHarvest Seed; Andy Knepp, Monsanto/Illinois Certified Crop Advisors Board; Elliot Lagacy, Illinois Department of Agriculture; Lauren Lurkins, Illinois Farm Bureau; Dick Lyons, Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP); Mike Plumer, retired, University of Illinois  Extension; Brett Roberts, NRCS; Tim Smith, Agronomist, CropSmith; Caroline Wade, Illinois Corngrowers/Illinois CBMP; and Robert (Woody) Woodruff, Illinois Stewardship Alliance.  Over time, 10 members remained active with the project, and the majority of curriculum design was done by a core group of five steering committee members plus the project leads – Jen Filipiak and Dan Towery.

Objective 1: Up to 20 conservation/agriculture professionals will be trained in advanced principles of soil health – especially soil biology, and methods to manage for soil health on the farm.

Results: We received 42 applications to participate in the program, committing to attend at least 4 of the six one and a half day workshops. This was much more than we expected, and we decided to include 33 trainees in the cadre, to buffer expected attrition. Of the 33 trainees, four were also steering committee members and two opted in as “floaters”. Floaters did not initially commit to all six workshops but agreed to attend on workshop by workshop basis, if space allowed. Of the 33 trainees, 22 graduated (including two steering committee members and one floater).  We were pleased over the commitment to the program trainees showed and believe that their attendance indicates how much this type of training is needed in Illinois.  Of the 22 graduates, nearly half (10) attended all six workshops, seven attended five workshops and five attended four workshops. Several of the trainees covered their own travel and expenses through the generosity of their companies, the Soil Health Partnership has assisted with field day expenses, and the Illinois Corn Growers Association is supported expenses for four of the trainees who are working in their “Cover Crop Specialists” program. Through this support, we kept travel and expense costs under budget even though we had 10 more trainees than originally proposed.

Detailed information on the workshop follows:

  • Workshop #1 “Soil Health and Sustainability” was held on March 29-30, 2016 in McLean County. The curriculum was led by NRCS’s Soil Health Initiative Team (Barry Fisher and Doug Peterson). It was based on training that NRCS provides to their staff. Day one was held at the Illinois Corn Growers Association’s conference center. It focused on the principles of soil health and included a detailed discussion of soil biology, soil health indicators and soil health assessment techniques. Day two was held at Mark Freed’s farm and focused on identifying soil health indicators in the field, using soil pits as a teaching and demonstration tool allowing participants to learn about Mark’s operation.  This workshop included 29 trainees and was open to all NRCS staff. In total, 46 people (trainees, guests, local farmers, presenters) attended the workshop.

  • Workshop #2 “Adaptive Nutrient Management for Soil Health” was held on June 22-23, 2016 at Tim Siefert’s farm (a Soil Health Partnership farm) in Sangamon County. The curriculum focused on nutrient cycling and how improved soil biology affects fertilizer recommendations. Trainers included Dr. Joel Gruver, Dr. Shalamar Armstrong, Dr. Tim Smith and Dan Schafer. This training covered soil biology and cover crop effects on scavenging nutrients, sampling and fertilizer recommendations. Day one was for just trainees and day two was a public field day held in conjunction with the Soil Health Partnership. This workshop included 26 trainees plus 29 additional people (presenters and local farmers). In total, 55 people attended the two-day event.
  • Workshop #3 “Measuring Soil Health and Alternative Farming Systems” was held on August 22-23, 2016 at Western Illinois University and Trevor Toland’s farm in Macomb County. The curriculum focused on the methods of measuring soil health and how to use soil health tests to guide farming recommendations. Trainers included Dr. Gruver, Donna Brandt (University of Missouri Extension) and Nick Goeser. Trainees evaluated and interpreted all the soil health test parameters included in the Cornell, Haney, and University of Missouri’s soil health testing protocol. Trainees also conducted qualitative soil health indicators used on the various “soil health cards” from different states (such as earthworm counts and aggregate stability). Day one was for trainees with 20 in attendance plus 10 additional people (presenters and local farmers). Day two was a public field day at Trevor Toland’s ranch – where we discussed cover crops in grazing operations and toured many of the soil health practices in use on Trevor’s farm. The field day was open to the public and an additional 15 local people attended. In total 45 people attended the two-day event.
  • Workshop #4 “Cover Crops – Becoming a Master Adapter” was held on November 9-10, 2016 in the University of Illinois’s Ewing Demonstration Center and at Junior Upton’s farm in Franklin and White Counties. The curriculum focused on cover crops and adapting cover crop management to different soil types and farm operations. Day one focused on planting dates, cover crop characteristics and seeding methods, which incorporated a discussion on current annual ryegrass and clover research. Trainers included Mike Plumer and Nathan Johanning. Day two focused on the experiences and expertise of Junior Upton who has been implementing cover crops for over 30 years – he is in a long-term research project regarding the ability of annual ryegrass to permeate the sedimentary layer of fragipan soils, and precision cover crop planting and “biotill” trials.  Junior Upton, John Pike, Lloyd Murdock (University of Arkansas) and Barry Fisher taught day-two. The training sessions were not publicly advertised but were open to cooperators and local farmers. Overall, 18 trainees attended with an additional 14 local farmers and presenters.

  • Workshop #5 “Seasonal Operations and Strategies for Soil Health Management” was held at BCS, LLC and Brad Ramp’s farm in McLean County. The curriculum focused on deep dives into seasonal tools and equipment. Planning for a soil health management system with the whole operation and the whole year in mind was highlighted. Trainers included Barry Fisher, Will Glazik of BCS, farmer Brad Ramp, and Joe Rothermel (farmer and trainee). On day two, the training broke into groups and created “conservation cropping system recipes” (see Recipe 1 Recipe 2 Recipe 3 Recipe 4) for farmers in four different cropping systems that are beginning their “soil health journey”. The systems-focused workshop concluded with a discussion on NRCS’ Conservation Stewardship Program with local NRCS staff and farmers. In all, 24 trainees attended with five additional local farmers and presenters.
  • Workshop #6 “The Biodiversity of Soil and Reaching the Early Majority” was held on June 29-30 at Kirk Kimble’s farm (a Soil Health Partnership farm) in Marshall County. The workshop began with a public field day featuring Wendy Taheri, a nationally recognized microbiologist specializing in arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. With help from the SHP, 47 farmers from 18 counties attended the workshop in addition to the 25 individuals associated with the soil health training series (presenters and trainees).  After clearing out the public, the trainees continued with more in depth work understanding the taxonomic and functional classifications of soil microorganisms. Shifting gears, the sixth workshop concluded with a training from National Wildlife Federation’s Jess Espenshade on reaching middle adopter farmers (as opposed to innovators). This training was developed by NWF for their successful “Cover Crop Champions” network.  

Objective 2: Experience will be gained by all trainees and workshop leaders (trainers) by attending field days throughout Illinois, and outside of the individual’s local area.
Results: See above for detail on the workshops. Workshops have been held in western, southern and central Illinois (five counties) and the 33 trainees came from 21 Illinois counties.

Objective 3: Increases in awareness of the importance of soil health, soil health management and practices to improve soil health (especially cover crops) among approximately 180 farmers and farm advisors who attend the field days associated with the training workshops.
Results: In addition to the 33 trainees, 93 local farmers and farmland owners attended workshops. Having the training events paired with public field days was difficult - it is a lot of work planning and executing two separate events on consecutive days. We received more positive feedback from trainees when personally inviting local farmers and landowners to participate in the discussion and the training at each event. They appreciated having more time to talk with each other and a handful of local farmers. The feedback also suggested that trainees would rather have more time to discuss topics on their own than attend a public field day that covers much of the same topic area but in less detail. Hosting an in-depth private workshop for a full day, followed by a more basic public event made for an awkward flow of topics (the public event repeated material rather than allowing for trainees to further discuss and ask complicated questions. For workshop 6, we held the public event first – with more introductory topics, then presented more complex topics later with just the training cadre. This sequence worked well and having a national speaker drew in more farmers. We did not reach our goal of 180 for this objective, however AFT feels strongly that the personalized approach to the field days and the importance of meeting/topic flow was an important lesson to learn and will apply it to future trainings.

Objective 4: Technical assistance regarding soil health and soil health best practices to be given to approximately 200 additional farmers and farmland owners through trainees after the workshops are completed.

Results: As this was an “advanced” soil health training series, we chose applicants based on their previous experience with soil health and their passion for the topic. Most trainees already had a heavy schedule of outreach events and enrolled in the workshop series because they wanted to “up their game”, i.e. their farmer and landowner clients were asking more technical questions. In preparation for this final report, we again asked a random sample of trainees to recall recent events they hosted or participated in regarding soil health from the end of the last report through March 30, 2018. The results (see attachment 'Table 1') indicate that nearly 4,000 additional farmers and farmland owners from nearly all Illinois counties and some neighboring states have participated in these events.

Objective 5: Curricula specific to Illinois will be developed, all training materials to be made available to all.
Results: A workshop series template is complete and included as attachment 'Workshop Series Template'. This project was presented at the SARE Our Farms Our Future Conference in April 2018 where we distributed the template. It is also being used to guide the current Advanced Soil Health Training series led by The Nature Conservancy and Illinois Corn Growers in the Sangamon River Watershed of Illinois.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Heidi Blythe
  • Dan Towery

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:


Knowledge outcomes include a gain in technical knowledge on soil health, a gain in knowledge on how soil health management varies by soil type and geography, and hands on experience delivering information.

We are primarily using feedback from trainees to understand knowledge gains. Table 2 summarizes what we learned from pre-testing and surveys. Post-testing and surveys (to calculate differences) will be conducted after the last workshop. We asked each trainee to rank their existing comfort levels with soil health topics and asked everyone to complete a pre-test (20 general questions on soil health). At the start of the workshop series, trainees were moderately comfortable with all topics we asked about, being most comfortable with cover crop management and least comfortable with soil biology and economic impacts (see Table 2).

Pre- and Post-test results: Trainees enrolled in the program were asked to complete a pre-test (given after workshop 1) and the same test again after workshop six. The pre-test asked 20 questions about soil health BMPs, soil biology, soil nutrients, and cover crops (results are in attachment 'Pre and Post Test Results'). In general, the questions with the most variability were the soil biology questions and soil nutrient questions. Trainees generally scored well regarding soil health management and cover crops. When trainees took the same test again after the series ended, there was less variability in the soil biology and nutrient questions; however, it is not clear we learned much about actual knowledge gained through this measurement tool. It is difficult to capture all the topics covered in just 20 questions and to determine the level of specificity appropriate in this kind of test. We are confident that trainees did gain knowledge, but that knowledge gained was better measured through their own rankings of confidence, whether they intend to use materials from the workshops in their own events, and through asking them directly what they gained from the workshop series.

Post-workshop feedback: After every workshop trainees were asked to give feedback via an online survey (results are in 'Post Workshop Survey Results'). Workshop feedback was consistently positive. All trainees who answered the post workshop surveys reported they met their expectations from very to extremely well, and they were moderately to extremely satisfied with content.

We also asked questions about how trainees intend to use the information they learned. These questions about intent revealed to the workshop organizers that the training was having an impact, and that trainees were gaining knowledge and confidence. From surveys following workshops 2-6 we learned that:

  •  96% agreed they’d use material they learned at these trainings at planned outreach events.
  • 78% agreed the trainings inspired them to create new outreach events.
  • 98% agreed the information they learned will be passed on to customers/clients.

We also asked open ended questions about what they found most useful in each workshop and what they would like to learn more about. What they wanted to learn more about was usually the same topics presented in the workshop, but even more in depth and with more technical detail.

Exit interviews: Finally, at the end of the project we attempted to interview all 22 graduates about their experience and the usefulness of the training. Hoping to gain critical feedback to improve future series, we completed 18 interviews. A detailed summary of those interviews plus the questions asked are in attachment 'Exit Interview Summary'.

The exit interviews were the single most valuable tool we used to measure the effectiveness of this project, yet hard to quantify. Some key findings from the interviews were:

  • When asked why they applied for the training, we heard that they wanted to broaden and deepen their knowledge about soil health, that there weren’t any programs available that went in depth on the system and not just on single practices. We also heard a frustration that major universities aren’t researching the full system, that “big ag” wasn’t doing enough or had too narrow a focus, and that no one was talking about the “why” (all were promoting the “how” – practices). 
  • Several of the graduates were also actively farming and many had made changes to their operations inspired by this programming. Adding wheat, increasing cover crop diversity, and doing more scouting and thinking more critically about how to make the “biology work better” were all mentioned.
  • Graduates that served a role of farmer advisor or educator said that they are using the data presented in their outreach, that they are applying the new information to better defining research parameters and are offering new programming in their communities.
  • We heard a wealth of interesting information about how graduates have changed how they talk about soil. A couple mentioned that they now talk about soil health when they never used to. Others mentioned facilitating conversation as a learning tool rather than lectures. They have changed their focus from “do it this way” to “this is why it works”. They mentioned that they feel more comfortable talking about soil health in general, discussing the value of the system, and encouraging their audience to think long term regarding benefits to the soil and profitability.
  • As far as critiquing the workshops, graduates said they’d like to see more science and more data, even if it’s not yet peer-reviewed. They suggested using pre-work to aid in learning and preparing post-workshop materials (3-ring binders).
  • Graduates suggested a wealth of additional topics and craved more in-depth information and discussion. Participants stated there was room to grow in topics of human nutrition and soil health, soil and fertility testing, NRCS programs and how to help farmers navigate them, grazing/livestock, and economics. Many trainees highlighted that they wanted to understand economics better.
  • Participants praised the workshops being held on-farm with farmers present and they liked the pace of individual workshops and the 18-month program. They appreciated the diversity of the training cadre and of teaching tools: indoor/outdoor, small groups, lectures, demos.

For ultimate outcomes, we are operating under the theory that if a venue for peer-to-peer learning of advanced soil health measurement and management is offered to Illinois ag professionals, that the quantity and quality of technical assistance available to farmers will increase, which will lead to greater adoption of soil health management practices. This is not an outcome that will be achieved during the lifespan of the project, but we do intend to interview project participants and local hosts for feedback on this outcome at the end of the project.

Building a soil health community in Illinois.—The sense of community among trainees is much stronger than anticipated. Trainees asked about next steps and some have created their own peer groups for continued learning and collaboration. At least three trainees have found new employment as a result of connections made through this network. Many ideas are being discussed about how to keep this group connected after the conclusion of the workshops and the steering committee will be pursuing ideas for continued engagement in the final year of this grant.
Recruitment/interest greater than expected.--Initially the steering committee was worried about recruiting 20 individuals to commit to attending at least four of the six planned one and a half day workshops. Even with travel expenses reimbursed, we recognized that this is a huge time commitment and time is our most valuable asset. We were thrilled at the level of interest – we received 42 applications to the program with every applicant willing to sign a statement of commitment to attend at least four workshops. We anticipated trainees would drop out, and many would attend only four of the six workshops so we accepted 33 trainees into the program. We did see some attrition, but 22 graduated and 10 attended all six workshops.

22 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
3,979 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

When we interviewed the trainees, almost all of them expressed a feeling of isolation in their communities and appreciated getting to know so many others “like themselves” promoting soil health management. And they have really capitalized on this new network. Our primary goal for this project was to increase soil health knowledge and expertise among Illinois ag professionals. We wanted them to gain knowledge, but what they really gained was community.

Unexpected accomplishments include:

  • One trainee brought in funds from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance to support the recording of all the soil health training events and other soil health field days around Illinois. With a professional editing service, ISA created a series of short training videos that are available online and as a three DVD set that was personally introduced to 90 Illinois SWCD offices. The series is available here:
  • The training series boosted efforts of Illinois partners to create an “Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership”. ISAP is a collaboration of groups & organizations that was created, in part, to serve as a network hub for Illinois’ new soil health specialists and house on-going training. ISAP calls upon trainees to write blogs, submit outreach events to a community calendar, and list their names as soil health specialists that farmers and landowners can contact. ISAP hosts monthly “soil health specialists” calls to discuss current issues and planning events.
  • Another trainee is working with Western Illinois University and a large steering committee of technical advisors and influencers (several of whom he met through the training) to create an in-service soil health training for Illinois high school ag education teachers.
  • A third trainee is now leading the second “Advanced Soil Health Training for Illinois Ag Professionals”, supported financially by ISAP, The Nature Conservancy and Illinois Corn Growers Association. Many of the previous graduates are engaged in this new series as trainers, on-farm hosts, and steering committee members.
  • A fourth trainee who was just beginning with cover crops when the series started has completely embraced a full soil health management system and now serves as a host farm for Holistic Management International, a national non-profit organization promoting regenerative agriculture.
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.