Networking for Soil Health

Final report for ENC15-147

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2015: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2016
Grant Recipient: Sustainable Farming Association
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Wayne Monsen
Sustainable Farming Association
Kent Solberg
Sustainable Farming Association
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Project Information


This project titled “Networking for Soil Health” is designed to expand the number of agricultural support professionals who are able to conduct successful soil health related programs for farmers.  The Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) is a leading organization in the promotion of soil health and this train the trainer program will greatly expand the network of soil health education, educators and events.  

SFA's definition of soil health is grounded in 5 Soil Health Principles: Keep the soil covered. Minimize soil disturbance. Increase crop diversity. Keep living roots in the soil. Integrate livestock.

The fifth principle, integrate livestock, makes SFA's soil health programming unique.  Livestock numbers on the landscape have really decreased in the last 50 years or so.  While cover crops are not an end in themselves as some sectors in agriculture imply, they are a tool that can aid farmers moving toward improved soil health.  Cover crops can also serve as a bridge to bring livestock back on the landscape. The integration of livestock, typically via cover crop grazing, can improve the economic viability of cover crop use. The value of  manure for building organic matter and soil fertility is well documented.

The SFA will target many Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, Extension, crop consultants, and other agricultural professionals to be trained in these 5 principles of soil health.  Through in-person training workshops, on-farm field days and a website portal designated to soil health the agricultural professional trainees will receive a well-rounded education.  In turn, they can return to their communities and conduct effective soil health events for farmers and agricultural professionals expanding Minnesota’s soil health network.

Project Objectives:
  1.  Train the Trainer Events and Scholarships:

The target budget for scholarships given to agricultural professionals to attend the Train the Trainer events is $15,000 over the two year project.  We estimated that 30 agricultural professionals would attend an event and be trained in the 5 principles of soil health.  We are conducting Train the Trainer events through the Midwest Soil Health Summit and workshop/field day events.  

  1.  Build the Soil Health Network Database:

The SFA maintains a network database of people that are interested in soil health.  This network consists of agricultural service providers, educators, and producers that are working in soil health or have attended a soil health educational event.  This database can be shared with others to help spread the word about the benefits of soil health.

Participants at a soil health education event that use the SFA’s soil health portal automatically are entered into the soil health network database.

  1.  Soil Health Web Portal:

The SFA has developed a website designated to soil health at:  This web portal will serve as the “go to place” for information about soil health.  Objectives 4 and 5 of this project are part of the soil health portal.  The web address for the portal is:

The portal serves as the communications hub for all things soil health.  The checklist for hosts to use for planning and conducting a soil health education event and a form to be used for registering attendees at events are also part of the soil health portal.

The site has an Events Calendar where Soil Health Network members can post soil health education events.  

The portal also has a Resource Library at:  This site has a form that event hosts can use to plan their soil health education event.  There also is a form for hosts to use to sign-in attendees.  Numerous videos have been taken at events and are shown on the SFA’s YouTube channel.  Numerous presentations on soil health are also located on the Resource Library portal.

The portal also has an Events Archive which houses many soil health and grazing events.  Both summaries and videos of events are listed.    

  1.  Checklist to Help Conduct a Soil Health Event:

The SFA provides a template to help soil health education hosts conduct successful events.   This template is on the soil health portal in the Resource Library.

  1.  Webinars on Soil Health:

The goal is to conduct 2 soil health education webinars over the 2-year period the project.  The SFA staff also take videos at workshops and field days.  These videos are placed on the SFA soil health portal.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. M. Scott Wells (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Paul Meintz (Researcher)
  • Betsy Wieland (Educator)
  • Carissa Spencer (Researcher)
  • Kristin Brennan (Researcher)
  • Glen Borgerding (Educator)
  • Ian Cunningham
  • Dr. Allen Williams (Educator and Researcher)
  • David Bartok (Researcher)
  • Dr. Ryan Stockwell (Educator)
  • Dr. Carl Rosen (Educator and Researcher)
  • Doug Landblom (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Julie Grossman (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Randy Anderson (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Nick David (Researcher)
  • Karl Hakanson


Educational approach:

The educational approach in this train the trainer project was to combine the training of agricultural support professionals with both soil health researchers and educators and farmers with experience with improving soil health using cover crops, including the impact of incorporating livestock and complex cover crop blends on row crops.  This training was accomplished through the 2016 and 2017 Midwest Soil Health Summits and the Dirt Rich field day events and with webinars.

The main objective was to train agricultural service professionals and these newly trained providers then take their knowledge on soil health and conduct soil health education events in their work areas.  These downstream events were either on-farm field days or workshops.  Other service providers and farmers took part in these events.

The training events were loaded with farmer to farming network activities.  This brought agriculture support professionals in direct contact with successful farmer to farmer networking.

The Soil Health Portal on the SFA's website is a clearinghouse for for information on soil health.  There are links to articles, publications, and presentations from numerous organizations on the site.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Train the Trainer Events

Advanced training of the principles of soil health were provided to ag service professionals who then do downstream education events to other ag service professionals and producers.


These advanced training events were accomplished through "Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts" classroom and on-farm activities and webinars on soil health and education events.  This report is for events that were conducted after the April 2017 progress report was supported.

The 2017 Dirt Rich events were 2 day events and were held August 8  & 9 in Faribaul and August 10 & 11 in Blue Earth.

The soil health webinars were held on June 21 and June 30. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts: Five scholarships were given to ag professionals for Faribault and 2 scholarships for Blue Earth.  There were 78 attendees at these 2 events.  Please see the attached flyer on these events.

Ag service providers and producers in the classroom sessions learned the scientific and theoretical aspects of soil health. In the afternoon the participants learned in the field at 4 different type farms: two crop farms that incorporate cover crops, a grass-fed grazing system, and a crop farm that plants cover crops and then had a neighbor graze cattle.

Participants learned about a new soil testing technique that looks at the genomic aspects in the soil. Dave Bartok, from Quorum Laboratories handed out lab results of recent soil tests that looked at levels of certain bacteria in the soil and how the use of cover crops are affecting the bacteria levels in the soil. This genomic testing is new and has the potential to provide much more information on what is happening in the soil than the typical physical and chemical soil tests.

Two soil health webinars were held to provide information in implementing soil health principles and benefits of cover for wildlife:

June 21, 2017 – Dr. Scotty Wells, “Filling the Void: Strategies for Improved Sustainability” In this webinar, Dr. Wells gives an introduction to the shifting soil health landscape, new opportunities for cash crops, the most updated data, and more.

June 30, 2017 – Kent Solberg: “Soil health for wildlife and fisheries managers: Why should we (or I) care?” Solberg discusses what positive impacts soil health can have for wildlife and fisheries, and how habitat quality is a function of soil health.

These were free webinars and we had 25 people on Dr. Wells and 21 people on the wildlife webinar.  These two webinars are posted on the SFA's website at:

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

10 Extension
6 Researchers
17 Nonprofit
40 Agency
81 Farmers/ranchers
37 Others

Learning Outcomes

142 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
43 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:


Soil health is a main focus of SFA and the staff are excited to be part of this very big issue.  With the help of the SARE PDP the SFA is advancing the  soil health message.  Under the 5 principles of soil health farmers can improve soil health and increase economic viability at the same time.  

Soil health is a hot issue in the mainstream agricultural press. For instance, “The Progressive Farmer” magazine dedicated the entire mid-February 2017 edition to soil health.  These are exciting times for soil health and the SFA is proud to play a part in raising awareness and providing education.


  1. Train the Trainer Events and Scholarships:

As of February 16, 2017  SFA has given out 53 scholarships for an approximate total of $13,500.  Scholarships went to 29 agricultural professionals to the pre-conference of the 2016 Midwest Soil Health Summit, 10 to summer field days in August 2016, and 14 to the 2017 Midwest Soil Health Summit.  The SFA is well ahead of the 30 scholarships originally planned.  

The first training event, “Building Soil Health Experts: Advanced Training for Professionals” was held February 17, 2016 in Alexandria.  This was a pre-conference event held in conjunction with the Midwest Soil Health Summit.  Here is the link to view the agenda:  Building Soil Health Experts, Advanced Training for Professionals.The SFA applied and received the opportunity to provide 5.5 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to certified crop advisers.  There were 7 certified crop advisers that received the CEUs from this pre-conference.

At the 2016 advanced training pre-conference scholarships went to 11 SWCD technicians, 7 NRCS staff, 5 Extension, 1 staff from the MN Department of Agriculture, 1 from an RC&D in WI, and 4 agricultural consultants.

The summary of the soil health education events hosted by scholarship recipients is described in the Accomplishments/Milestones section below.

The two summer field days titled “Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts” were held in Redwood Falls on August 16 and August 17 in Marshall.  These 2 field days were in partnership with The Pasture Project.  Please click on this link to view the flyer on the events:  Dirt Rich Redwood Falls, Marshall (2) .  Morning  were classroom style workshops and  afternoon sessions on  cooperating farms.  

A YouTube video with Dr. Allen Williams describing how to tell by smell if you have healthy soil is posted on the SFA Soil Health portal in the resources page.  This YouTube video was taken at the Marshall field day.

The 2017 Midwest Soil Health Summit was held in Fergus Falls on February 15 and 16.  Click on this link to see the agenda:  2017-MSHS-PROGRAM-web.  Over 130 people attended the 2-day summit.  The SFA gave out 14 scholarships to agricultural professionals: 4 were to SWCD technicians, 2 to NRCS staff (1 from MI), 4 to Extension (1 from an agriculture teacher at a community college), 1 to a MN DNR employee, 3 to consultants.  

The SFA was contacted by a statistics program at the University of Minnesota wanting to evaluate an evaluation program on nonprofit organization.  Under the advisement Professor Nathaniel Helwig student project members Georgia Huang and Enoch Kan reviewed evaluations from three of the soil health education events.  When the report is complete, the students will provide recommendations for improving the evaluation processes going forward. Here's the link to the interim report:  STATCOM_sfa_report

Two two-day "Dirt Rch: Building Soil Health Experts" were conducted the week of August 8, 2017 in Faribault and Blue Earth.  There were 78 attendees with 10 receiving scholarships to attend an event.

The total pf ag professionals that attended the two Midwest Soil Health Summits and the 4 Dirt Rich events over the 2 years of the project were 185.  The total number of scholarships given out through the project was 60.

  1.  Build the Soil Health Network Database:

Jason Walker, the SFA's Communications Director, built and maintains the Soil Health Database.  To date there are more than 1,100 people entered into the database.  The database is electronic based where names and email addresses are used.  

  1.  Soil Health Web Portal:

The soil health web portal is up and running on the SFA website.  It is changed and updated regularly.  The portal has a comprehensive calendar of SFA soil health events.  Members of the Soil Health Network can post their events on the calendar.  The site also includes videos, documents and guides created and collected by SFA staff.  There are links to partner organizations and agencies and relevant articles on soil health.

The SFA offers a wonderful service through this site.  Members of the Soil Health Network can register their education events and the event is put on the Soil Health Events Calendar.  The SFA takes pre-registration and fees, helps publicize the event, sends the registration list to the host just prior to the event, after the event a post-evaluation survey is sent to registrants, the summary of the evaluation is shared with the host, and the Soil Health Network database grows as the participants are entered into the database.  

We have found that there is a learning curve with using the Soil Health Calendar.  SFA staff are working on ways to get the word out of the benefits of using the SFA services.  To date, 14 soil health events sponsored by scholarship recipients who have held "down stream" events have been posted on the calendar 

There have been 26 soil health events hosted by 2016 and 2107 Midwest Soil Health scholarship recipients where  names or email addresses of attendees were not collected.  At a few of the events no registration list was taken nor email addresses requested.  Some soil health events were held without using the SFA soil health calendar to register participants.  One winter meeting had a participant list that was not shared because of a county policy that restricts sharing participants lists of any event that includes feedlot issues. There were 175 people at this winter meeting.  All told, we estimate that these 26 events had a combined total of over 1,200 participants.  Some participants have attended other SFA-sponsored events.

Each of the scholarship recipients agreed to host at least one soil health education event within one year of the summit.  We are keeping track of scholarship recipients to make sure they hold or are involved in a soil health event.  Three recipients have left their jobs and will not be holding an event.  An NRCS employee from Michigan had planned to hold an event this fall but they are in a drought and the cover crops did not grow.  He plans to conduct the event next year.  A MN DNR employee and a MN NRCS employee plan to conduct a joint event in the Fergus Falls area. 

To date scholarship recipients have held or been part of 2 winter meetings and 19 field days or farm tours.  There were over 200 attendees at the 2 winter meetings and over 850 attendees at the 19 field days.  As stated above, many attendee email addresses were not taken or provided and thus, were not entered in the database.  It is very likely many of these people are in the database because of being involved in other related events.  

  1.  Checklist to Help Conduct a Soil Health Event:

The soil health portal of the SFA website serves as a checklist to help the host of a soil health education event put on an event.  The form is located within the Resource Library and is titled “Soil Health Event Network Flyer Template.”  This template helps a network plan a soil health education event.  It helps the host describe: What is the event; When is the event; Where is the event; Who should attend; Details of the event; and Registration information.

  1.  Webinars on Soil Health:

Two soil health webinars were held to provide practical experience in implementing soil health principles:

June 21, 2017 – Dr. Scotty Wells, “Filling the Void: Strategies for Improved Sustainability” In this webinar, Dr. Wells gives an introduction to the shifting soil health landscape, new opportunities for cash crops, the most updated data, and more.

June 30, 2017 – Kent Solberg: “Soil health for wildlife and fisheries managers: Why should we (or I) care?” Solberg discusses what positive impacts soil health can have for wildlife and fisheries, and how habitat quality is a function of soil health.

These were free webinars and we had 25 people on Dr. Wells and 21 people on the Solberg.

Kent Solberg, SFA’s educator, has presented at numerous events focusing on improving soil health with incorporation of cover crops and livestock on farms.  Many of his presentations are highlighted in Events Archive on Soil Health portal.

101 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
84 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

We had farmers who attended the 2017 Midwest Soil Health Summit fill out an evaluation. There were a few comments about the SFA having RD Offutt present at the summit. The farmers stated that they did not like Offutt and that they were dissappopinted that the SFA works with them. The SFA takes the approach that we will work with operations that want to improve soil health. Offutt is huge and if they implement soil health principles that may encourage others to implement principles. 

On this same evaluation, many farmers reported implementing cover crops on all of their acres, some said a few acres to try it. Others said they were considering implementing cover crops and/or grazing crop residue. A couple said they converted their farm to all perennial crops and are rotational grazing.

Success stories:

The SFA have been cooperating with The Pasture Project on gathering scientific data of changes in soil health with the incorporation of cover and in some cases cover crops and grazing livestock.  We have 4 cooperating farmers involved with this research.  The SFA has received confirmation that The Pasture Project will continue to support this important scientific research for an extra year.  However, one of the farm cooperators from the Redwood Falls area has decided to not continue with cooperating on the project because they are so excited about the progress they have made with combining cover crops and grazing on their cropland that they want to do it on all of their land and not have a control where cover crops and grazing are not being done.



The SFA staff are working on better ways to make sure scholarship recipients conduct their soil health education events in a timely manner.  The staff are also looking at ways to collect the contact information of the participants that attend soil health training events to add these participants the Soil Health Network and in including evaluations.  The SFA will report on these efforts in upcoming progress reports.

SFA is seeking ways to evaluate better the landscape impact of its soil health work.  This includes measuring number of acres that are converted from conventional production to more sustainable methods, as well as measure soil health outcomes, production outcomes and changes and ecomomics.  In the coming year, this part of the work will be developed more fully.  We believe more study and support for this type of analysis is needed and would be helpful throughout the North Central SARE region and nationally. 

The staff of the SFA feel very stronlyg that now is the time for ag service providers to encourage farmers to implement the principles of soil health.  It's like the race is on right now in agriculture with the conventional ag side pushing new weed control chemicals and heavy uses of fertilizers to fix the weaknesses versus the sustainable side pushing the use of cover crops and grazing which allows the natural processes in the soil to grow and express.  We hope that the cover crops and livestock wins.

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.