Soil Health Nexus: Strengthening Soil Health Programs for Educators and Farmers/Ranchers in the North Central Region

Progress report for ENC20-189

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $90,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University Extension
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Christina Curell
Michigan State University Extension
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Project Information

Abstract:

The North Central Region Soil Health Nexus is a university-led team dedicated to increasing access to research-based soil health knowledge, extension educational programming and resources. Equipping agricultural educators - including extension, agribusiness, and partner agencies and groups - to teach soil health practices to farmers and ranchers is one of the key focuses of the Nexus.

We are proposing to increase agricultural educators’ ability to teach soil health and soil health practices to farmers and ranchers across the North Central Region. Nexus members will host six state train-the-trainer trainings throughout the region utilizing the resources, research, and instructional material found on the Soil Health Nexus website.  We will host two in-services for Soil Health Nexus members for training and collaboration. Our goal is to reach at least 350 educators in total.

The Soil Health Nexus has a robust digital toolbox of soil health teaching resources on our team website. Updating and adding new soil health resources, including multimedia tools such as videos, which are valuable tools for educators, is a priority for the team. Through this proposal, we will develop a state-specific interactive soil health matrix for agricultural educators. The matrix will help farmers choose and compare different soil health practices, from an environmental and economical perspective, that they can best implement on their farm. This proposal will develop a template matrix for the North Central Region as well as pilot the matrix in two North Central states with differing agricultural and ecological resources

Project Objectives:

We will continue to broaden our ability to instruct farmers and ranchers on how to maintain and enhance their soil health by editing existing and developing new instructional materials to the Soil Health Nexus digital toolbox. The toolbox will serve as the foundation for the materials and resources that we will use for the state-based trainings. In addition, we will develop a soil health matrix and two state-based matrices to the digital toolbox. The matrices will help farmers and ranchers prioritize the soil health practices they can implement on their land with regard to ecological and financial impacts.

Regional in-services for Soil Health Nexus members will be held annually. These in-services will increase collaboration of research and extension programming and familiarize educators with soil health demonstrations focusing on protecting water quality, climate, and farm sustainability.   Current research on soil health will be showcased as well as tools that can be used to teach soil health. Participants, roughly 50 educators from throughout the North Central Region, will learn hands-on teaching techniques they can use in their programming within their respective state.

State soil health training will also be conducted. We will train at least 300 educators in total, through three trainings per year with 50 participants at each.  The trainings will help attendees integrate hands-on soil demonstrations into their programming.  We will use the materials from the digital soil health toolbox and new materials developed through the regional in-services in these trainings. These trainings will be largely state specific, however, we will encourage states with similar soil type, agronomic systems, and climates to work together to broaden their reach. The participants from the state training will use the soil health tools learned in their programming. Farmers who attend these trainings will be encouraged to consider implementing new practices on their operations that positively influence soil health, water quality and the climate. This approach will ultimately lead to more farms that are more resilient to climate variabilities.

Cooperators

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Education

Educational approach:

Our goal as the Soil Health Nexus is to increase agricultural educators’ ability to teach soil health and soil health practices to farmers and ranchers across the North Central Region. To address this goal, our educational approach is based on the train-the-trainer model to build soil health awareness and education and bring educators together in-person to teach a common soil health message that can be communicated to farmers and ranchers across the region. Our train-the-trainer approach entails hosting six state-level field trainings throughout the region and two regional in-services for Nexus members, hosting on-going virtual lectures and discussions, and creating decision support tools and educational resources.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

2021 Regional Soil Health In-Service
Objective:

The goal of the 2021 Soil Health In-service was to provide educators with research-based soil health educational tools that can reach a broad audience and allow educators to learn from one another and discuss key research needs and issues.

Description:

The 2021 Soil Health In-service featured key networking and in-person learning and featured a range of soil health research presentations from experts from across the region. Topics included carbon storage, soil health testing, barriers to implementation, and the impacts of climate change on soil health indicators.

Outcomes and impacts:

Post-event survey results from the September 2022 In-service indicate that roughly 70% of respondents increased their understanding of soil health and water quality research and outreach occurring across the Midwest and over 90% of respondents strongly felt they formed new working relationships as a result of attending the event. The in-service provided a key opportunity for extension professionals to improve their soil health programming moving forward.

Monthly Soil Health Digital Cafes
Objective:

The goal with the monthly Soil Health Digital Cafes is to provide educators with the latest soil health research and increase collaboration and discussion among educators about key soil health topics.

Description:

Throughout 2021 the Soil Health Nexus continued to host their monthly digital soil health café series where soil health experts shared their research on a range of soil health topics and colleagues participated in breakout conversations discussing the findings

Outcomes and impacts:

In total, over the course of the 12 digital cafes, 1,400 agricultural professionals tuned in live to these events in 2021. Post-webinar surveys show that 45% of attendees learned a 'moderate' or 'great' amount that will be useful for their work from the presentations and discussion.

Catalog of Resources on Soil Carbon and Carbon Markets
Objective:

The goal of the catalog is to develop new soil health resources to better enable educators to learn about carbon sequestration and carbon credits and answer producer questions about soil carbon and carbon markets.

Description:

The Soil Health Nexus added to our Soil Health Toolbox by creating a catalog of resources about soil carbon sequestration and carbon agreements. This includes frequently asked questions, and tips from leading experts on how to advise producers about entering a carbon credit agreement.

Outcomes and impacts:

While impact data is still preliminary at this stage, the catalog was promoted to 300 educators at a North Central Region Water Network webinar and 140 educators at a Nexus Digital Café in October of 2021. Since debuting the catalog 339 individuals have viewed the resource.

Soil Health Matrix Decision Tool
Objective:

To help farmers who are just beginning their soil health journey decide which soil health practice to implement based on overall soil health benefits, cost, labor, time, and ecosystem services.

Description:

The Soil Health Nexus assembled a multi-state advisory team that worked together to develop and refine a Soil Health Matrix Decision Tool.  The tool is designed to serve as a 101 tool for producers who are considering implementing new soil health practices on their operation. The tool allows producers to list their current practices and then list those practices they are considering implementing in the future and compare how these changes impact a range of soil health indicators. It also allows users to see the skill, equipment, labor, and time needed to make the change and the ecosystem services they would gain from making practice changes. The tool is meant to be applicable to the full North Central Region and is made with input from extension and research representatives from all 12 states. 

Outcomes and impacts:

The matrix will be piloted in March 2022. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
12 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

378 Extension
149 NRCS
300 Nonprofit
212 Agency

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This past year the Nexus has been setting up and developing the Soil Health Matrix Decision Tool that consultants and farmers can use to compare different soil health practices across a number of indicators. The decision tool will be beta tested winter/spring of 2022. In the process of getting the background information for the tool there was a lot of good discussion by researchers and extension educators on current and past research on the practices. These discussions led to better understanding on issues that face each state in the North Central Region on soil health and how it relates to water quality. This discussion will make the matrix more robust and useful to growers throughout the region.

Educators are becoming more comfortable using existing materials that the Soil Health Nexus has developed as well as know where they can get more resources to teach soil health.  Through the regional in-service held in September, educators from states across the region gained knowledge that they can implement in their states for fellow educators. The end goal will be that educators throughout the region will be comfortable teaching soil health practices to their growers.

992 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
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.