SFA Networking for Soil Health

Final report for ENC17-158

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2017: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The Sustainable Farming Association’s Networking for Soil Health Project is a community-based educational and outreach program, dedicated to increasing skills, knowledge and experience of USDA-NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Ag Extension professionals, ag industry personnel, educators and crop consultants to conduct effective soil health-related and sustainability programs for farmers. The Project enables professionals to assist and educate farmers on soil health-related programs and practices.

By training the trainer, the Project provides information, training and coaching to agricultural professionals necessary to teach farmers how to apply Soil Health Principles. The Project uses entrepreneurial farmers, agronomists, livestock producers and university researchers who are on the cutting edge of soil health practices to teach the trainers, at workshops, field days, webinars and in peer groups.

Working with Extension, NRCS/SWCD, FSA and industry leaders to target outreach, SFA’s Project, now in its third year and well evaluated, will reach out to professionals with less exposure to soil health information in underserved parts of the state or who are new to their jobs, and provide them with scholarships to attend SFA’s flagship Midwest Soil Health Summit. Scholarship recipients will then conduct a workshop, field day, webinar or meeting in their community, using model curriculums, training modules and outreach tools. Two “peer to peer” groups of producers and professionals will be launched for ongoing support. SFA will partner with the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association to include more livestock producers. Advanced soil health information will be offered to professionals who’ve already been trained.

Project Objectives:

The overall goal of SFA’s Networking for Soil Health Project is to expand the number of agricultural support professionals and educators who have the knowledge, skills and experience in the area of sustainable agriculture and improvement of soil health AND who can convey this to farmers throughout the state. A secondary goal is to increase the connections between these professionals and farmers and producers throughout the region. The overarching, long term goal of the project is to change the paradigm of agriculture wherein more farmers and ranchers employ the use of Soil Health Principles and incorporate livestock on their operations – to achieve sustainable incomes, community well being, and to protect food producing resources, air, land and water, for future generations.

This paradigm shift has begun, as evidenced by conventional agricultural groups such as the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, the MN Corn Growers, the MN Soybean Growers inclusion of soil health training and education at their conventions, meetings and publications; proven financial success of soil health practitioners and demonstration of their practices and bottom lines; and widespread discussion of soil health principles and practices in magazines ranging from Successful Farming to Graze Magazine.

SFA has a strong record of success in educating and supporting professionals to help producers to be successful economically, and to be soil health practitioners.  Its Networking for Soil Health Project has, over time, achieved changes on the landscape that need to be continued and expanded. This can only happen if its “train the trainer” program is supported. In the same way that soil needs care to be healthy and productive, so does the training and support of agricultural practitioners, achieved through the SFA project.

Near term outcomes:  SFA’s Project will result in a cadre of agricultural professionals within NRCS/SWCD, Extension, FSA and other NGO ag educators who have been trained on sustainable agriculture fundamentals, and in particular, on soil health practices and research.  These currently number over 55 at present, as a result of the first SFA Networking for Soil Health project.

Other near term outcomes include a series of on farm field days, workshops or webinars held by these professionals with at least 10 producers attending each, for a minimum of 300 more farmers trained and educated.   The relationships that are built between and among ag professionals and producers should serve as a model to others, and be repeatable over time.  The associated earned and social media and outreach will serve to increase public awareness of and acceptability of soil health and sustainable agriculture, to foster the paradigm change described above.

Another outcome will be at least one and possibly 2 “peer to peer” groups that deepen and enrich participants experience as professionals and producers, and that may be replicable in other parts o the state.

The program will also serve to expand SFA’s base and the Soil Health Network’s reach and impact, and will help leverage relationships within commodity groups and other conventional agricultural groups.

Longer term outcomes:

  • An increase in the number of farmers and ranchers in Minnesota and the region who include cover crops and incorporate livestock systems on the landscape – employing the Soil Health Principles as a result of interactions, education and training with agricultural professionals in NRCS/SWCD, Extension.
  • More farmers who can serve as cooperating producers in research and experiments.
  • Greater profitability for producers who now face low commodity prices – resulting in a more resilient agricultural economy.
  • Soil health and sustainable agricultural professionals who serve as leaders within the state and region in their ability to work with producers and transfer knowledge, experience and information on livestock systems, cover cropping and complex production regimes.
  • A change in the landscape wherein more livestock systems grace the countryside, rural communities support more family farmers, and soil health principles are fully integrated.


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Educational approach:

2018 Midwest Soil Health Summit February 14-15, Fergus Falls; included a 4 hour introductory and lunch session of scholarship recipients on how to effecitvely convene "downstream" soil health training events and use SFA's portal for extended outreach.   

Held 7 Café Chats in March and early April 2018 in  Lake Crystal, Mora, Paynesville, Marine on St. Croix, Hastings, Vesta and Amboy.

“Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts,” field days, Red Lake Falls and Lake Park, August 28 and 29, 2018.

2019 Midwest Soil Health Summit, March 12, St. Peter.  Also held a session to introduce to Soil Health Principles to new scholarship recipients on March 11, prior to the recipients attend the Summit.

Held 8 Cafe Chats in February and March 2019 in Amboy, Ellendale, Marshall, Renville, Montevideo, Thief River Falls, Kennedy, and Warren.

"Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts," field day, Barnesville, September 5, 2019.

"Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts," field day, Becker, September 18, 2019.

Wrap-Up Webinar for Scholarship Recipients, November 21, 2019.  Webinar to celebrate the completion of the 2 SARE-PDP grants on building Soil Health Experts and to introduce new soil health organizations, discuss NC-SARE opportunities, and introduce new SARE-PDP on Silvopasture.  PowerPoint slides used for the webinar: Wrap-Up Webinar

Education & Outreach Initiatives

2018 and 2019 Midwest Soil Health Summits

Target many Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, Extension Educators, crop consultants, commodity groups, and other agricultural professionals to be trained in the 5 principles of soil health. Provide scholarships to agricultural professionals to attend the Summits. The scholarships cover registration fees, mileage, one night's lodging, and meals.


The SFA gave out 23 scholarships in 2018 and 25 in 2019. With the addition of scholarship from the previous Networking for Soil Health project, the SFA gave out 108 scholarships for agricultural professionals to attend the Midwest Soil Health Summits and our "Dirt Rich" soil health field days.  Our goal of 50 for the project duration was exceeded by 8. 

At both Midwest Soil Health Summit's, SFA’s Kent Solberg led a pre-conference session on soil health for the scholarship recipients. The goal of this session was to help the recipients learn the basics of soil health and to be prepared for the more advanced soil health concepts presented in the summit.  Then, over lunch or dinner, the SFA led a discussion for the scholarship recipients on conducting a downstream event and using the SFA’s website to register their education event, led by Jason Walker, SFA Communications DIrector. 


Outcomes and impacts:

The SFA gave out 23 scholarships to agricultural professionals at the 2018 Midwest Soil Health Summit held February 14 and 15 in Fergus Falls. Scholarship recipients were represented from a wide variety of agricultural professionals: 11 SWCD staff, 1 Extension Educator, 4 Pheasant Forever staff, 2 from MN Dairy Initiative, 1 from Northwest Stockmen Association, 1 NRCS staff, 1 Crow Wing River Forage Council, 1 from MN Farmers Union, and 1 From the MN Food Association.

In 2019 the SFA gave out 25 scholarships at the 2019 Midwest Soil Health Summit March 11 & 12 in St. Peter and 5 scholarships at the Dirt Rich field days: Building Soil Health Experts in Barnesville September 5.  Again, the scholarship recipients represented a wide variety of agricultural professionals: 11 SWCD staff, 5 Extension educators, 1 professor from MN State Mankato, 1 graduate student, 4 consultants, and 3 from nonprofit organizations.  An interesting aspect of this group of scholarship recipients is that soil health moved into urban agriculture.  Five scholarships were given out for "downstream events" to a nonprofit urban organization that focuses on health and other services in metro areas, to a diner that educates customers on healthy food and where their food comes from, and to Extension that trained Master Gardeners in the metro area on the principles of soil health.

Summary of comments from evaluations at the 2019 Midwest Soil Health Summit.

Comments to improve the training:

• Don’t focus only on conventional farming,
• Add vegetable and fruit production,
• Forest health would be a good topic
• Incorporating livestock (laying hens),
• Incorporating more perennials and cover crops
• The NRCS demonstrations greatly increased my confidence in my future soil health event
• It was exciting to connect soil health to human and overall planet health, which is a great place to start soil health education to non-farmers,
• Building soils in urban environments for veggie growers

The scholarship recipients were asked about the type of “downstream” soil health education event they plan to host. Hosting Summer Field Days/Pasture Walk was by far the most popular, followed by Workshops, then Research/Demonstration Sites, and a few Winter Field Days/Pasture Walks.

Café Chats

SFA held a series of Café Chat events in spring 2018 in seven Minnesota sites: Lake Crystal, Mora, Paynesville, Marine on St. Croix, Hastings, Vesta and Amboy. In 2019 the SFA held 8 Café Chats in Amboy, Ellendale, Marshall, Renville, Montevideo, Thief River Falls, Kennedy, and Warren. All of the Café Chats involved SWCD personnel who were scholarship recipients this year or in previous years.


These free events featured area farmers who are practicing soil health principles like cover crops, more diverse species, reduction in soil disturbance and adding livestock. During each Café Chat, the featured producers shared their soil health experience, both positive and negative, followed by open questions and discussion.  

Here's the link to view the 2019 Café Chats flyer: 2019.Cafe_.Chats_.flyer_

Outcomes and impacts:

There were 115 participants at 7 Café Chats in 2018 and 93 in 2019, with about 75% of the participants being farmers and 25% agricultural service providers.

The Café Chats were mostly organized by local SWCD and Extension staff.  However, the Café Chat in Warren were sponsored by MN Extension and NDSU Extension, NRCS from both MN and ND, as well as the Marshall County Soybean and Corn Growers.  Flyer promoting this event attached: Mar 5 Soil Health Cafe Chat

The SFA received evaluations from the participants.  Below is the summary of the responses:

Sustainable Farming Association – SFA 2019 Café Chat Feedback Form

  1. What did you find most helpful about the Café Chat?
  • enjoy talking with you Kent
  • small groups
  • good conversation - local farmers
  • excellent presentation, covers and biology, planting methods/cover crops
  • listening to other farmers, conversation and info exchange
  • local experience, a lot of useful information from people in the area
  • farmer participation
  • sharing of ideas
  • learned some more of what I’m being told to implement
  • New resources to look up
  • Farmer networking and sharing
  • From s non-farmer perspective, it helped me understand better who farmers are, what they care about, what they know/implement
  1. What did you learn that you will put to use on your farm or business?
  • more diversity
  • interseeding
  • integrate livestock more
  • $5Kyr???  MN water quality
  • animal incorporations
  • cover crop
  • soil biology
  • cover crop mixes for grazing
  • combining diverse cover mixes with no-till
  • it was good to see what all the producers are doing here locally
  • cover crops after wheat
  • learned a lot about cover crop and diversity
  • ideas to share with other producers
  • hired guy soil biology - Fall grazing, spring grazing
  • More learning about covers
  • Need to keep ground covered
  • How to proceed confidently
  • Grazing covers if can talk dad into it
  • Programs we can tap into to start changes
  1. Are there things you would have liked to learn that weren’t covered today?
  • microbes
  • more on cover crops and seeding green
  • how do soils with no worms do with no-till?
  • wind erosion
  • maybe tap into more people that have adopted soil health cover crop, reduced/no till full time
  • herbicide mgmt. discussion story swap
  • soil health in relation to water quality – aquifer, rivers, lakes
  • there is always more to learn
  1. What, if anything, would you have liked to have been done differently?
  • better weather, more people
  • be able to argue (?) faster
  • put 3-4 producers up front at once as a rapid fire panel for 1 minute or under answers
  • it would be nice to have handouts of the PowerPoint presentations
  • more time for the producers, beginning was too long
  • seen more SWCD Board Members here
  • lunch sponsor?
  • was tough listening to Kris downplay no-till and principals
  • the meeting was well run
  • Its dinner time, food option aside from appreciated cookies would have been a plus
  • Better slake test!  I’ll try!
  • A few extra farmers for more info
  • Find ways to get more growers out to these meetings
  1. Any other comment you’d like to share?
  • very good meeting
  • many commented on the collaborative atmosphere
  • work in progress
  • it was a good experience to bring producers together to learn more about soils health.  Glad these workshops are happening.
  • you can no till beans directly into corn stubble with no tillage good program
  • I felt it was enlightening and covered very well the future practices where farming is needing to go
SFA's yearly "Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts" were held in August 2018 and September 2019

These daylong “train the trainer” events unite local and regional experts to discuss how soil health can improve farm operations and include both classroom and field segments. Events in 2018 were held near Red Lake Falls and Lake Park, chosen to provide programming to under-served areas. In 2019 the events were in Barnesville and Becker.


The events were planned in cooperation with the SWCDs from Becker, Red Lake, Pennington, Kittson, and West Polk counties, NRCS area staff, and Northwest Stockmen Association who did these as their “downstream” events.  Speakers included Justin Morris, NRCS regional soil health specialist; Kent Solberg, SFA livestock & grazing specialist; and Jeff Duchene, NRCS grazing specialist. The agenda for the 2018: 2018.DirtRich 

The 2019 Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts field days were in Barnesville and Becker. Each event had their own focus and speakers.  The Barnesville field day included a soil pit, full season cover crops, interseeding cover crops in cash grain.  The flyer promoting the Barnesville event: 2019.DirtRich.Barnesville

The event in Becker focused on Silvopasture and how it can improve both the soil and the woodlands.  There were 21 attendees at this event.Here is the flyer for this event: DirtRichBecker2019Sept17

Outcomes and impacts:

There were 4 trainers at both Dirt Rich events in 2018.  Training included both in field and classroom activities.  There were 46 attendees at Red Lake Falls and 30 attendees at Lake Park for a combined 76 attendees at these two day-long events. Below are the attendee lists from the two events.

The sign-in sheets at the Red Lake Falls are found at: DirtRich2018Aug28

The sign-in sheets at the Park Lake Dirt Rich are at: DirtRichLakePark2018Aug29

In 2019 there were 3 speakers at the Barnesville event. Fifty people attended this event.  The sign-in sheets for this event are at:BarnesvilleAttList2019Sept5

At the Becker event there were 5 speakers and 20 attendees.  The sign-in sheet is at: BeckerAttList2019Sept18

Downstream Events

The “downstream” soil health education events which the scholarship recipients are to conduct are designed to help move the importance of soil health to the forefront of agricultural research and discussions.


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

Outcomes and impacts:

Nineteen of the 2018 23 scholarship recipients held downstream events or were involved with other events such as the "Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts" field days or the Café Chats.  A few highlights of successful “downstream” events this year include:

  • Claire LaCanne, Extension Educator in Rice County, held a soil health “downstream” event in June that also included temporary featured fencing to help get livestock on the land. There were 30 attendees at this event.
  • The Café Chat in Vesta was organized by Holly Hatlewick and Brian Pfarr, from Renville and Redwood SWCDs, and trained some 50 agency staff and farmers in early April.
  • There were 4 scholarship recipients from 2018 and 3 from previous years involved with the “Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts” in August, 2018.
  • Another example of a “downstream” event is from Michigan.  An NRCS employee attended the 2017 Midwest Soil Health and recently held the “downstream” event on September 20.  This event had numerous sponsors and cooperators including MI NRCS, Eaton Conservation District, MSU Extension, MI Angus Association, MI Cattleman’s Association, MI Farm Bureau, and Single Tree Farm.  The event had 35 participants on a hot and humid rainy day. 
  • A good example of cooperation between nongovernment agencies and agencies are the events that Pheasants Forever were part of.  They organized 7 events with one event working with 3 conservation districts and a watershed district.  In total the Pheasants Forever events had 236 participants at their 7 events.

In 2019, there were 19 "downstream" education events that were reported, from the 28 scholarship recipients.  Events within the metro area were new this year.  There were two events put on by Anne Sawyer, UMN Extension, along with 2 other Extension scholarship recipients, for Master Gardeners.  There were over 200 participants at these events.

Scholarship recipient Michelle Manske from the Pillsbury United Farms in Minneapolis held an event called Open Streets.  She collaborated with the UMN Soil, Water, and Climate Department and Extension.  Kristen Brennen, NRCS  Assistant State Soil Scientist, conducted a demonstration on soil health.  She said about 30 people took in their booth in detail.  Here is their flyer on the event:

Their were also events with collaboration between two SWCDs.  The Olmstead and Winona SWCDs worked together to host a bus tour that focused on soil health, nitrogen management, and cover crops.  Here is the flyer about the tour: Nirtogen Management Soil Health and Cover Crop Bus Tour

Two scholarship recipients from Yellow Medicine SWCD conducted two different soil health events.  The first one was a winter meeting with a luncheon on March 1 in Wood Lake.  They discussed soil health and cover crops with 22 attendees.  The other event also had a luncheon on a farm near Porter.  They had open discussions on economic benefits of soil health and incorporating cover crops on your farm among 15 participants.  Here's the flyer promoting the Porter event: Soil health luncheon

Rod Greder, MN Extension, was a scholarship recipient in the SARE-PDP grant.  He continues to conduct soil health education events.  He held two field this summer in Howard Lake and Pine City.  There were 35 attendees at these two events.  Here is the flyer advertising these field days: SARE grant field day 8-21-19 FINAL


Peer to Peer Groups

“Peer to Peer” Groups are to deepen and enrich the participants’ experiences as professionals and producers in soil health. The SFA will present on other "Peer tp peer" events as models for how to form a group. The group will then decide how to move forward and what information they want to share and what farming operations they want to visit.


“Peer to Peer” groups are designed to deepen and enrich the participants’ experiences in soil health as professionals and producers. The SFA will share information and experiences from other "peer to peer" such as successful groups in Mower and Fillmore counties in MN and a No-Till Farming group in Nebraska.  The SFA will get the group started and leave it to farmers and service providers to decide issues and operations to explore.   



Outcomes and impacts:

The SFA helped one group start a "peer to peer" group.  Following the 2018 Midwest Soil Health Summit the SFA helped a group of farmers and agricultural service providers get started and then left it up to the participants to decide what operations to explore. The group went well beyond the "peer tp peer" concept and decided to form a new MN Soil Health Coalition. The nucleus of this group includes “peer to peer” participants that were involved since the beginning.

The MN Soil Health Coalition has come a long way in the past year. Jennifer Hahn, one of the SFA's scholarship recipients, is the coordinator of the MN Soil Health Coalition. The mission of the organization is: "Producer driven education, outreach, and adoption utilizing information exchange to promote the principles of Soil Health practices."

The coalition has laid out 10 goals. These range from providing education to farmers, agency staff, and the general public to promoting large scale adoption of soil health practices. Members of the coalition have given presentations, interviews, manned booths at well over 30 events since they began a little over a year ago. Here are slides on the work of the coalition Jennifer Hahn presented at the SFA's November 21, 2019 wrap-up webinar to scholarship recipients: SFA SH Network Webinar


Educational & Outreach Activities

35 Consultations
11 On-farm demonstrations
7 Online trainings
10 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Tours
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
18 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

15 Extension
10 Researchers
18 Nonprofit
27 Agency
25 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
563 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

2,050 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
108 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

7 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

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

34 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
112 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

SFA was able to dig deep into soil health professional development education as a result of this NC SARE project, and the earlier 2 year project after which  this one was modelled.  Over 2/3 of the 108 scholarship recipients were consistent in sharing information about their downstream events and using the SFA portal for advertising and outreach purpose, but SFA does not have documentation of what was done by the other one third.  In a few instances, personnel moved to a new locale or new job position.  In other cases, SFA assumes that some type of follow up was done, but follow up email did not yeild a response from the scholarship recipient. 

Two large gaps exist in soil health educational programming that could use attention.  The first is the lack of concerete information on the economics of soil heatlh, input costs (including reductions in costs), yeilds, prices obtained, net per acre).  SFA is working with the new MN Office of Soil Health and Farm Business Management to address this gap, but it needs much more assessment and farmer outreach.  Another is the lack of information on soil changes the result from sustained use of soil health practices, though this gap is easier to close and also is part of research being conducted by MOSH and others.  As SFA continues its soil health work, attention is being focused on closing these gaps.

Lastly, a better tool for measure on-the-ground impacts of soil health education needs to be created.  SFA's evalution forms included 2 items on soil health practices employed by farmers attending its workshops and field days, and number of acres.  But this information was not summarized on a spread sheet or relational data base that could track, over time, changes in soil health practice adoption.  This, too, is being addressed by SFA and CINRAM (Center for Intergrated Resources and Agricultural Management) at the University of Minnesota, by generating soil health case studies and an associated data base an online tool to track information.  


Success stories:

A good example of cooperation between nongovernment agencies and agencies are the "downstream" events that Pheasants Forever were part of.  They organized 7 events with one event working with 3 conservation districts and a watershed district.  In total the Pheasants Forever events had 236 participants at their 7 events.

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.