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

Final report for ENC20-189

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $90,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
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


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.


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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

2022 Regional Soil Health In-Service

The 2022 regional soil health in-service was designed to provide hands-on training and networking for extension educators and local conservation staff. A significant portion of the training was focused on communicating and engaging diverse audiences on soil management topics


The 2022 regional soil health in-service was held in Waseca, Minnesota and was framed as a Field School for Soil Health Educators. The event allowed attendees to evaluate soil changes after using different tillage and cover crop planting equipment, hear the latest research on manure management and cover crop nutrient uptake and hear from communication professionals on best practices for communicating soil health. Attendees also produced their own soil health focused podcast or video story to use in their work.

Outcomes and impacts:

A total of 54 individuals attended the 2022 training from across the region. Post-event survey results demonstrate that 83% of respondents noted they believed the training would lead to their clients increasing their rate of adoption of soil health practices at least “a little”. Moreover, 48% noted they felt the training changed their ability to promote soil health at least “a moderate amount” and 48% noted they felt at least “a moderate amount” of change in confidence in teaching soil health.

Monthly Soil Health Digital Cafes

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.


Throughout 2021, 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 the Soil Health Nexus hosted 24 digital soil health cafés where soil health experts shared their research on a range of soil health topics and colleagues participated in breakout conversations discussing the findings. The digital cafe series also provided an avenue for the Nexus to promote the products developed through this tool including soil carbon resources and the Soil Health Matrix Decision Too. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Over the last year alone, 1,158 agricultural professionals and farmers tuned in live to the digital cafe series.  Post-webinar surveys show that 67% of attendees learned at least a 'moderate' amount that will be useful for their work from the presentations and discussion. While not everyone who attended the digital cafe series completed the post-webinar survey, those that did train/advise over 8,000 farmers and ranchers in a year, demonstrating the robust reach of the Soil Health Nexus network.

Catalog of Resources on Soil Carbon and Carbon Markets

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.


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:

The catalog was promoted to agricultural professionals through the Soil Health Nexus and the North Central Region Water Network. These resources were highlighted to 300 educators at a North Central Region Water Network webinar and 140 educators at a Nexus Digital Café in 2021. Since debuting the catalog 771 individuals have viewed the resource.

Soil Health Matrix Decision Tool

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.


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 debuted in its pilot form in March 2022. We then solicited feedback from the full Soil Health Nexus team, and our community of agricultural professionals through a feedback survey. In later summer 2022, we cataloged all the feedback gathered and incorporated suggested changes accordingly. The Matrix has been promoted to the Soil Health community through our blog and digital cafe series. As a result of this effort, 2,076 individuals have used the tool since its creation.

State Soil Health Trainings

The Soil Health Nexus worked with state contacts in 6 states - Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, and Nebraska - to support state-based soil health trainings. Trainings focused on local topics and research with the goal of increasing agricultural professional soil health programming skills and better enabling them to work with farmers and ranchers to increase soil productivity, protect water quality, and enhance farmers ecological and financial sustainability.


Ohio’s soil health training incorporated Michigan partners and took place July 13, 2023. The event focused on soil health and water quality.

  • Nebraska held a Water, Crops and Soil Health FiEach training differed in their focus:
  • Indiana’s training took place June 21-23, 2023 and had 35 agricultural professionals in attendance. The training was hosted as a part of the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative.
  • Iowa hosted a Soil Health Workshop that took place August 4, 2022. The event focused on soil testing, measuring and addressing soil compaction, evaluating soil health in a microscope, and using a soil pit for teaching soil health.
  • The Nexus supported the Bi-State Advanced Soil Health Training that took place on August 18th event in Peoria, Illinois. The training covered a range of soil health topics and focused on effectively communicating soil health and network building with farmers and fellow ag professionals.
  • Kansas’s training took place in Hays Kansas on May 18-19, 2022 and focused on dryland management systems.
  • eld Day August 25-26, 2023 that the Nexus supported. The event featured updates on global supply issues, irrigation management, nutrient cycling, and a producer panel focusing on soil health which was broadcast on YouTube to ag professionals across the region.


Outcomes and impacts:

Per our request, all six state soil health trainings conducted evaluations and three of the trainings - Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa - included common indicators to ensure we could measure collective impact. Collectively, 60% of attendees the Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa trainings felt the training would lead their clients to increase their rates of soil health adoption at least a “lot” and 83% felt  their participation in the trainings increased their ability to promote soil health at least a “lot”.

Soil Health and Water Quality

While soil health is well studied, the relationship between soil health and water quality is less well understood. Relating soil health to water quality is difficult since a management practice that leads to better soil health might not necessarily result in better water quality. The Nexus helped develop a whitepaper to better explain the connection between soil health and water quality and help educators give recommendations to farmers and ranchers that support healthy soil and healthy water.


Two members of the Soil Health Nexus, Franscico Arriaga with UW-Madison Extension and Anna Cates with University of Minnesota Extension, developed a whitepaper exploring the connection between soil health and water quality, and specifically explain those situations where a practice can be beneficial for soil health by detrimental to water quality. The Nexus team worked collectively to review, copyedit, design and promote the report.

Outcomes and impacts:

The whitepaper was released in March 2023 and since that time 435 individuals have accessed the report.

Soil Health Graphics

The goal of the graphics was to create visual aids to help ag professionals in teaching and communicating soil health and the connection between soil health and water quality.


The Soil Health Neux worked with a graphic designer to create a series of graphics that can be used by ag professionals in their soil health programming. The graphics include a water cycle graphic, a nitrogen cycle graphic, and two flowcharts demonstrating the connection between soil health and water quality

Outcomes and impacts:

The graphics were developed in March 2023. Since the graphics debuted and were distributed to the Soil Health Nexus they have been accessed by 324 individuals. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
24 Online trainings
1 Tours
10 Webinars / talks / presentations
7 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

750 Extension
150 NRCS
25 Researchers
250 Nonprofit
150 Agency
49 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This past year the Nexus completed the Soil Health Matrix Decision Tool that consultants and farmers can use to compare different soil health practices across a number of indicators. The tool was a key output of this project, and ensuring its utility moving forward a key outcome. The decision tool was tested and evaluated by users as well as the Nexus community at large. A presentation was developed on the matrix and delivered during the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference. The matrix tool has also been introduced to federal, state, and local conservation agencies in several stated in the North Central Region. The matrix tool has been viewed and used by 2,076 individuals since it’s development and in evaluations 79% of respondents noted they would use the tool at least ‘sometimes’ with 38% noting they would use the tool “often” moving forward.

A key outcome of this project is increased agricultural educator confidence and change in the way educators teach soil health to align with the latest research.  The Soil Health Nexus hosted two regional in-service trainings for Extension educators and other soil health educators over the course of the project period. In addition to conducting a post-event survey, we also sent a survey out six-months after the in-service to gauge long-term impacts. Results from the six-month evaluation demonstrate that 55% of respondents felt very or quite confident presenting soil health information and 55% of respondents did indeed change how they present and teach soil health as a result of attending the training. Interestingly, these results are consistent with the results we gathered directly following the events suggesting that the immediate impacts of the training persist over time and create lasting change in the way educators present, promote and teach soil health. It is also worth noting that educators who attended the Nexus in-service held in August 2022 in Minnesota have developed field days and in-services that will be held in the Great Lakes region this summer. 

Lastly, a key goal of this project was to ultimately increase soil health practice adoption on the landscape in the North Central Region.  60% of attendees at Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa at the soil health trainings felt the training would lead their clients to increase their rates of soil health adoption at least a “lot”.  Moreover, post-event results from our 2022 regional in-services showed that 83% of respondents believed the training would lead to their clients increasing their rate of adoption of soil health practices at least “a little”.  These results suggest we are making an impact on this long-term goal.

900 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

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.