From Classroom to the Field: Advanced Soil Health Training for New York Agricultural Service Providers

Progress report for ENE18-153

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2018: $145,305.00
Projected End Date: 08/28/2021
Grant Recipient: American Farmland Trust
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Aaron Ristow
American Farmland Trust
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Project Information

Performance Target:

Performance Target for Service Providers

Twenty (20) agricultural service providers trained in advanced soil health principles and practical methods for using crop rotations, cover crops, reduced tillage, nutrient management and other practices on diverse farms across New York will teach 400 farmers operating 80,000 acres about soil health techniques and how to successfully integrate them into their production systems.

Performance Target for Farmers

Fifty (50) farmers informed by our beneficiaries will conduct a soil health assessment, develop a soil health plan, or implement a soil health practice such as cover cropping, reducing tillage, crop rotation, and/or nutrient management trial or demonstration.

 

Introduction:

On-farm and university research highlight that healthy, fully-functioning soils offer substantial benefits to farmers as they are resilient to weather extremes, maximize water and nutrient storage, and increase profitability through decreased input costs and increased yields. Healthy, fully-functioning soils also help protect water quality; reduce runoff contributing to soil erosion, water degradation, and contributing to flood events; and sequester carbon. However, despite the benefits, NY farmers struggle with integrating crop rotations, cover crops, reduced tillage or no-till, nutrient management including the use of compost, and other soil health practices into their management systems. This is particularly true for dairy farmers, with limited time availability for crop management, and vegetable farmers looking to maximize production.

To motivate farmers to implement practices, they need an advanced understanding of the benefits of soil health, soil health management, soil biology and the economic implications for adoption. A 2016-17 Report of the National Cover Crop Survey highlighted enthusiasm for cover crops remains high and the acreage continues to increase. “Non-users of cover crops report high interest and expressed concerns that could largely be addressed with more information on cover crop species and practices.” “It is likely that many non-users could be convinced to try cover cropping, particularly as commodity prices recover and more education and training is provided.” (CTIC, 2017 Report of the 2016-17 National Cover Crop Survey). A 2014 cover crop survey of NY farmers (Ketterings et al., 2015) supports this finding by concluding that more technical experts are needed to assist farmers with understanding the benefits of healthy soil, soil health assessments and implementation of practices addressing soil constraints, and perceived barriers particularly those related to economics.

This program offers a 3-year training curriculum for 20 agricultural service professionals across New York State. The goal is to establish a network of Practical Soil Health professionals to support and educate farmers to improve soil health on their land. The training is a series of five two-day workshops with associated field days focused on developing technical knowledge in soil health principles and practical aspects of soil health management. Trainees are learning from University researchers, Extension Educators, conservationists, and agronomists at a series of in-depth workshops on soil health principles, assessment, measurement, management systems, farm/farmer specific adaptation of practices, and outreach and delivery techniques. Trainees are also learning from farmers at field days across the state, as well as gaining knowledge on applying soil health practices in diverse soil conditions and farming operations.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Greg Albrecht (Educator)
  • Jennifer Berkowitz (Researcher)
  • Thomas Bjorkman (Researcher)
  • Celest Carmichael (Educator)
  • Jason Cuddeback (Educator)
  • David DeGolyer (Researcher)
  • Aaron Gabriel (Educator)
  • Paul Gier (Educator)
  • Kathleen Gifford (Educator)
  • Erick Haas (Educator)
  • John Hanchar (Researcher)
  • Sara Katz (Educator)
  • Quirine Ketterings (Researcher)
  • Amy Langner
  • Dave Magos (Educator)
  • Alicia Marie Lyhrssen (Educator)
  • Steven Page (Educator)
  • Rod Porter (Educator)
  • Scott Porter (Educator)
  • Anu Rangarajan (Researcher)
  • Matt Ryan (Researcher)
  • Paul Salon (Educator)
  • Matt Sheffer (Researcher)
  • Bob Schindelbeck (Researcher)
  • Russ Smith (Educator)
  • Janice Theis (Researcher)
  • David Wolfe (Researcher)

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Twenty (20) agricultural service providers are being trained in advanced soil health principles and practical methods for using crop rotations, cover crops, reduced tillage, nutrient management and other practices on diverse farms across New York State.
A separate curriculum is developed for each workshop, which is planned with the guidance of a steering committee that includes participants from Universities, Conservation Agencies, Agribusiness and other Ag Service Providers. The workshops are delivered through a two-day draining that includes classroom and in-field visits to working farms.

Once the training has been completed, the trainees are charged with conducting their own outreach activities to inform farmers about soil health techniques and how to successfully integrate them into their production systems. From the trainees we expect a total of 400 farmers operating 80,000 acres to be reached through field days and fifty (50) farmers to take the next steps of conducting a soil health assessment, developing a soil health plan, or implementing a soil health practice such as cover cropping, reducing tillage, crop rotation, and/or nutrient management.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT
1. Advisory committee of key members of New York’s soil health and agricultural service communities will compile an advanced soil health curriculum specific to New York’s agricultural industry, soils, and topography for agricultural service providers. It is our intention for this curriculum to be available beyond the life of this project for use by others seeking to provide soil health training either “right out of the box” or as a template to be adjusted as needed. April 2018 – December 2019

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
11
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
5
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
11
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
January 21, 2020
Accomplishments:

An advisory committee was formed in May of 2018 and has met six times between April 16th and October 2nd to discuss selection criteria and to plan the curriculum specific to New York’s agricultural for Workshops One and Two. Committee members have also provided input through email and phone conversations. An update on the progress of the curriculum was sent to the advisory committee on September 17th. The committee consists of approximately 15 people from Cornell University, Cooperative Extension, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the NYS Soil and Water Conservation Committee, NRCS, and Agribuisness including four farmers and two Ag Consultants. Workshops one through five have been completed, the final workshop concluded on January 21st, 2020.  Materials from all of the workshops, including presentations, have been shared with class participants. A webpage with course materials and some videos is also publicly available.

(http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/)

Completion of curriculum development was delayed due to inclement weather in March of 2019. We also found that there were already many commitments to March meetings by project beneficiaries and therefore they were unavailable for our March meeting.

Soil Health Specialist Training Website

In addition, American Farmland Trust created a short informational webpage for the general public interested in learning more about the program. That page can be found here: https://farmland.org/project/new-york-soil-health-specialists/

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

RECRUITMENT and PRE-TRAINING ENGAGEMENT
2. 30 agricultural service providers from organizations such as New York Agri-Business Association, NE Region CCA, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NY Soil & Water Conservation Districts, AEM Planner List-serve, NOFA-NY and others respond to recruitment materials that clearly state performance target and outline our expectations for our beneficiaries. The service providers complete the application process which will include a pre-training skills assessment and a requirement to identify interested farmers they currently advise who they can further assist on soil health issues if selected for training program.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
8
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
39
Proposed Completion Date:
June 30, 2018
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
July 20, 2018
Accomplishments:

In June 2018 a recruitment announcement for program applications was sent out to agricultural service providers through the List-servs of organizations such as New York Agri-Business Association, NE Region CCA, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NY Soil & Water Conservation Districts, AEM Planners, NOFA-NY and others (see attached announcement – “02-Soil-Health-Specialist-Flyer-060618-final”). The flyer included a link to where individuals could apply to the professional opportunity.

.

Both the flyer and the website recruitment materials clearly stated performance targets and expectations for our beneficiaries.

Thirty-nine service providers from Agri-business, farmers, cooperative extension, soil and water conservation districts, and non-profits completed the application process which closed July 20, 2018. We exceeded our goal of attracting at least 30 applicants. There were 21 applications from the private sector and 19 from the public with an impressive geographic distribution among the applicants. The application included a pre-training skills assessment and questions to identify interested farmers they currently advise who they can further assist on soil health issues if selected for training program.

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

3. Twenty applicants will be accepted into the training program. Their acceptance notification will repeat our performance target and beneficiary requirements and expectations. Beneficiaries will develop their own training plans on a template provided, integrating the orientation workshop and at least 3 of the 4 following workshops and field days into their training plan. Contact information will be provided for assistance in developing training plans.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
7
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2018
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
August 24, 2018
Accomplishments:

A beneficiary selection criteria document was created on April 16th listing eight key characteristics to look for in a successful applicant (See upload 04-Beneficiary-Selection-Criteria-Final). A sub-committee convened on August 13, 2018 to discuss selections of the final applicants. Private-sector applicants received higher priority in the selection process as that was the primary focus of the trainings, but there is also public sector representation. Seven of the 20 beneficiaries are also active farmers. Notices for acceptance into the program were sent out on August 24th, 2018. The acceptance notification included reminders of our performance target and beneficiary requirements and expectations. A congratulatory letter, instructions on how to pay a registration fee, a letter for them to sign affirming their commitment to the program, a tentative curriculum outline, a draft agenda of the first workshop, and a survey of training needs were included in the notification email. 

Notices for those not accepted into the program were also sent out at that time.

A press release was posted to the AFT website on September 21, 2018 and was picked up by other outlets, including Morning Ag Clips (https://www.morningagclips.com/aft-trains-practical-soil-health-specialists/).

   

A press release was posted to the AFT website on September 21, 2018 and was picked up by other outlets, including Morning Ag Clips.

Learning Through Education Program 1 - SHST Graduate Announcement 042920

As previously mentioned, a survey of training needs was sent out with the initial acceptance announcement and a template was handed out with time to complete it at the second workshop. However, we have found that it is difficult to get the beneficiaries to respond with much interest in the training plans. A lesson learned from this project so far is that participants prefer to develop learning plans during time allocated at the workshop and not on their own, so time should be allocated in the agenda. 

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

LEARNING THROUGH EDUCATION PROGRAM
4. Twenty (20) enrolled participants will attend Orientation Workshop #1: Program Orientation and Basic Soil Health Assessment- Orientation to include: project Performance Target, Milestones, Verification, and beneficiary training plans and expectations. Basic Soil Health Assessment to include principles of soil health, soil biology, soil physics, soil health assessment and measurement, and how to use soil health tests to guide recommendations.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
7
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
42
Proposed Completion Date:
September 30, 2018
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
September 25, 2018
Accomplishments:

Workshop One was conducted September 24 and 25, 2018 in Cortland, NY. The curriculum was led by Cornell’s Soil Health Team and was based on training NRCS provides to their staff. This workshop started with an orientation to introduce beneficiaries to the requirements and expectations of the program which included the project Performance Targets, Milestones, Verification, and an introduction to the training plans.

See handouts:

This first day focused on the principles of soil health, and a detailed discussion of soil biology. We hosted an orientation social hour in the evening of Day One for beneficiaries to build relationships and strengthen networks as part of their professional development. Day Two focused on soil ecology, soil health indicators, assessment techniques and soil health management planning. The afternoon of Day Two was held on-farm and focused on identifying soil health indicators in the field, using soil pits as a teaching and demonstration tool, and learning about soil health systems on the host farm.

The workshop was held in conjunction with the New York State Conservation Districts Employees Association’s annual Conservation Skills Workshop. Our program was included in their schedule and registration was open to NYSCDEA registration system. An additional 22 people from NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation Districts attended the training.

A separate web page was created on the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health website and shared with project participants with general project information, agenda, speaker bios, participant bios, and presentations: 

http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

5. The 20 enrolled participants will attend one or more of the remaining workshops:
• Workshop #2 and Field Day, November 2018: Cropping Systems and Cover Crops- covering crop rotation and the benefits of cover crops; cover crop characteristics and seed mixtures; adapting cover crop management for differing purposes, soils, and types of farms; planting dates and methods; and termination. The field day will cover similar topics at a farm or USDA Big Flats Plant Material Center with farmer and farm advisor participants giving our students the chance to hear questions and experiences from farmers and observe the workshop presentations and demonstrations.
• Workshop #3 and Field Day, February 2019: Adaptive Nutrient Management for Soil Health- covering nutrient cycling, how soil biology impacts nutrient management, cover crop scavenging of nutrients, sampling and fertilizer recommendations. A field day for farmers and their advisors covering similar topics will give our students the chance to hear questions and experiences from farmers and observe the workshop presentations and demonstrations.
• Workshop #4 and Field Day, August 2019: Eliminating, Reducing, and Modifying Tillage for Soil Health- covering the benefits of reducing tillage; no-till, planting green, and alternative tillage methods will be discussed with considerations for differing soil types and management schemes. The field day with farmers will focus on tillage and planting equipment potentially in conjunction with Empire Farm Day’s soil health programing and demo plots.
• Workshop #5 and Field Day, November 2019: Covering customizing soil health systems to the farm and farmer, the economics of soil health, and communication skills. An “indoor” field day on honing communication skills, utilizing social media, and helping farmers build their "emotional bank account” will be held for farmers, their advisors and students.

Forty (40) farmers and 100 additional farm advisors will attend the 4 field days associated with workshops. They will gain valuable information and provide real world situations for our students to observe, interact with, and gain experience.
The 20 beneficiaries (and the additional service provider and farmer participants) will complete post- workshop and field day surveys/evaluations.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
40
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
120
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
57
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
65
Proposed Completion Date:
November 30, 2019
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
January 21, 2020
Accomplishments:

Workshop 2:

Workshop Two was conducted October 23 and 24, 2018 in Ithaca, NY. As with the first workshop, the curriculum was led by Cornell’s Soil Health Team but focused on cover crops and adapting cover crop management to different soil types and farm operations. Day One presentations included cover crop characteristics, planting dates and addressing soil specific health constraints through using selected cover crop species or mixtures. One highlight of the training was the hands-on cover crop demonstration where 20 varieties of cover crops were planted in plastic tubes and grown in a greenhouse for five weeks prior to the workshop. The cover crops were brought to the workshop and pulled out of the tubes so that participants could see the bare root systems of each of the plants. The beneficiaries had the opportunity to pick up and examine all of them in one place. This was followed-up by a discussion of each plant, one-by-one, lead by Cornell’s Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab Assistant

Professor Mathew Ryan:

Day Two focused on the economics of cover cropping in New York, based on a 2017 survey of farms across the state. We also addressed how nitrogen management can be affected by the use of cover crops. We ended the classroom experience with a panel of farmers who have been implementing cover crops long term. They shared their experiences and expertise. In the afternoon we headed outside to a field day where 35 plots were planted on three dates with different species and mixtures. The field day was open to the public and was coordinated and lead by one of the program’s beneficiaries. There was a tour of the plots lead by a team of experts from the German company, DSV, which provided a unique perspective to cover cropping. The field day also included the New York Soil Health Trailer and a Soil Pit. See attached agenda. 

Course materials are available at http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

A post-workshop survey was handed out at the workshop. See attachment for a summary of the responses: 30a WS2 Evaluation_Summaries 102418

One beneficiary took the time to send an email with the following praise:

“I was very happy with this session. I took a lot away regarding cover crop species and their specific traits. I feel that the data was presented in a way in which we all understood it. Seeing the different plants, with their root structures really helped me. I feel a lot more confident in advising growers on cover crops. I felt that the lower point / activity ratio was perfect. With the presenters I felt that there was a good balance of academic, ag business and grower input. The field day at king agra was awesome. Everyone got to see the different cover crops in their various stages of growth. The data presented was easy to digest and everyone was more than helpful.”

A list of resources was shared after the second workshop. See PDF: 31-SARE-AFT-References. One participant had this to share:

“Thank you to everyone for putting this together. What a gem! I began to go through the document without previewing it; thinking I would be able to review and provide feedback. The breadth of experience and knowledge of our instructors is evidenced in the scope of this collection! Needless to say, I cannot add anything at this time. I look forward to applying what is contained in it. Personally, I find it astounding. Coming from the background I have, and with what I am learning, I see many opportunities, many challenges, and am more aware of how our historical and current practices interact with the soil.”

Workshop 3:

Workshop #3, was originally scheduled for March 6th and 7th, 2019 but was postponed due to poor weather and because there were several other established winter meetings already scheduled in late February and most of March. This made it difficult for our particular group to be able to attend our event which was new to their schedule. However, this workshop was rescheduled and held October 29 and 30, 2019 in two locations. Because it was necessary to reschedule around farm activities, this workshop became our 4th workshop in the series. However, it will be described here.

As always, the curriculum was led by Cornell’s Soil Health Team and focused on nutrient management and carbon cycling.  Day One topics included an introduction to biochar and it’s benefits for soil health, a facilitated discussion on nutrient management in pasture systems, and a video-conference presentation on tools for precision nitrogen management. The group was also given introductions to the farms that were featured for this training by Matt Sheffer of Stone House Farms and Conrad Vispo of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. See attached agenda:  01 SARE AFT WS 4 Agenda Final

In the afternoon of day one, we had an extensive tour of Stone House Farms in Hudson, New York. Working with the Rockefeller family, Stone House Farm has dramatically changed its production methods to embrace diverse soil health practices.  They have established a new project, Hudson Carbon, that is focused on documenting the climate impacts of adopting soil health practices, including no-till, cover crops, and pastured livestock. They are collaborating with Marine Biological Laboratory to analyze carbon cycling from soils across 12 sites on their farms.  In order to do this, they have been collecting data on their farm along with a conventional, neighboring farm for the past four seasons. We made several stops along the tour to examine their cropping systems and to see how they are collecting data. At the end of the farm tour, we had a reception at the Churchtown Dairy to foster peer-to-peer networking within the group of specialists. See attached photos:

 

The morning of day two focused on the agricultural management effects on nutrient loss to waterways and the atmosphere. We included a farmer-led discussion with Jay Goldmark, field crops production manager for the Hudson Valley Farm Hub.

In the afternoon of day two, we had an extensive tour of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub which is a non-profit center for resilient agriculture located on 1,500 acres of prime farmland in Hurley, NY. They provide professional farmer training, host and support agricultural research, demonstrate new farm technologies, and serve as an education resource for advances in food and farming.  The Farm Hub works with local farmers and partner organizations to identify barriers to and opportunities for building a resilient food system.  See attached photos:

A post-workshop survey was handed out at the workshop. See attachment for a summary of the responses. 11 WS4 Evaluation_Summaries Some highlights of responses include:

“What I liked best about this course was all the farms and the experiments shared. Very awesome to hear the innovative and advanced work going into soil health practices. These farmers seem more like scientists than laborers and tractor drivers.”

Another said: “This was by far my favorite workshop. Being able to interact with growers and see how they run their operations is always an interesting learning experience. It's fascinating going to operations different than the one many of us typically work with and getting to experience first-hand how they are run.”

Course materials are available at http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

Workshop 4 and Field Day:

Due to the postponement of the workshop originally scheduled for March 2019, Workshop 4 actually became workshop 3, and was held August 6th and 7th, 2019 in conjunction with the New York State Empire Farm Days soil health programming and demo plots, as originally planned. The curriculum was led by Cornell’s Soil Health Team. See attached agenda and photos:

12 SARE AFT WS 3 EFD FINAL 080219

 

Day one included a discussion about the history, geography of soil health and opportunities specific to New York State and no-till management of pests and diseases in corn and soybeans.  A highlight of the day was the producer panel of three NYS farmers – Dave Magos, Jay Swede and John Kemmeren – with a facilitated discussion on nutrient management in no-till systems.  Project beneficiary Rod Porter planned and led a tour of cover crop demonstration plots.

Day two shifted towards discussing the developing technology of planting green, which is the practice of no-till planting a cash crop into a living or recently terminated cover crop. There was a presentation on research from Penn State on Planting Green and there was a farmer panel with three farmers – Donn Branton, Jim Hershey and John Macauley – on the successes and challenges they’ve had with planting green. There was a presentation on managing for healthier soils and cleaner water by Jim Hershey, President of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance and a presentation on the effects of reduced tillage on beneficial arthropods. Two field-related events were scheduled. We had an in-field demonstration of tillage and manure spreading and we had scheduled a tillage equipment field tour. However, there was a severe downpour/thunderstorm and the equipment tour was canceled. All of the presentations and demonstrations were open to the public and most of the presentation were recorded and made available online. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLJ04aCSrjI&t=187s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKlie78tEHA

As previously stated, these talks were planned and held in conjunction with the Empire Farm Days Soil Health Programming which is organized by the New York State Interagency Soil Health Working Group. This group is lead by project partners at Cornell University and American Farmland Trust is a long-time participant.  In addition to the presentation and equipment demonstrations, other soil health related activities were available to the beneficiaries such as the NYS Soil Health Trailer, NRCS and Cornell University Soil Health educational demonstrations and a third day of talks. Furthermore, additional farmers and Ag Service Providers benefited from the course because the public was welcome to attend all events.

Course materials are publicly available at http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

A post-workshop survey was handed out at the workshop. See attachment for a summary of the responses.  Some highlights of responses include:

15_WS3 Evaluation_Summaries

“What I liked best about this workshop was the farmer panels. I always learn the most from listening to different practices and what works/what doesn't directly from the farmer’s themselves”

“I liked getting to walk around and see/learn about equipment, including the demonstrations.”

“I liked learning about planting green from the Farmer Panel. This was a new concept for me. I'd heard about it before, but only in very general terms.”

Workshop 5 and Field Day:

Due to the postponement of one of the workshops until late October of 2019, workshop 5 was delayed.  However, it is scheduled for January 21, 2020 in Auburn, New York at the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District. This will be a one-day, in-person meeting without a farm visit.  We plan to supplement this one-day workshop with a one-day webinar in February.  This course was limited to one day based on a few factors including, the time of year and the availability of beneficiaries and presenters.

This workshop will include presentations on partial budgeting, quantifying management changes and decision making tools available to use with farmers. We will also spend significant time with how to communicate effectively with farmers for encouraging adoption of these practices. The communication piece will include nearly 2 hours of interactive group activity.

Forty farmers and 100 additional farm advisors will attend the four field days:

Of the four workshops held, all of them have had field days open to the public.  Thirty-seven additional farm advisors have attended the field days and, it is estimated that thirty-seven farmers total attended all field days.

After all of the trainings were completed, a press release, announcing the ‘graduation’ of 16 Soil Health Specialists was posted to the AFT website on April 29, 2020 (see previous upload above: “Learning Through Education Program 1 - SHST Graduate Announcement 042920" and was picked up by other outlets, including Morning Ag Clips. (see previous upload above: "Learning Through Education Program 2 – Press Release Morning Ag Clips 052820".

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

ENGAGEMENT TO SUPPORT ACTION
6. The 20 service provider beneficiaries will develop their own “Teacher Tool Kit” by the end of year 2. The “Tool Kit” will consist of presentations, slides, hand-outs, references, demonstrations, etc. introduced during workshops and field days. Beneficiaries will be encouraged to share what tools and resources they have or discover with each other. The “Tool Kits” will be used by beneficiaries to help prepare for their own soil health educational and technical assistance activities with their clients. Beneficiaries will be strongly encouraged to participate with organizations such as the New York Soil Health Work Group, Western New York Soil Health Alliance or other local/regional organizations promoting soil health to expand their knowledge and resource base. We will provide contact information and meeting dates for these organizations. In addition, we will encourage beneficiaries to consider forming farmer soil health discussion groups, especially in areas without existing organizations.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
7
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
16
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

The development of the tool kit is in progress but nearly complete. Currently, the tool kit has a collection of presentations, handouts and references from all five workshops. These have been shared both in print and electronically. In addition, a web page has been developed to make resources available to the participants but is also open to the public - http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/.

As the workshops were completed and participant evaluations were assessed, it was determined by project leaders that, in addition to printed/electronic media, the beneficiaries would also benefit from having physical tools in their “Tool Kits” to help conduct their own soil health educational and technical assistance activities with their clients. In the spring of 2020, the process of purchasing such physical tools was begun with materials to build a soil slake test demonstration kit.  (See “Engagement to Support Action 1 - Cornell-Soil-Health-Slake-Test”). The slake test demonstrates a soil’s resilience to the breakdown of larger soil aggregates into smaller microaggregates when they are exposed to an extreme wetting event.  We will also be purchasing penetrometers, an instrument that measures the soil’s resistance to penetration (See “Engagement to Support Action 2 - Surface_Subsurface-Factsheet”).  The penetrometer is an easy and effective tool for both demonstrating soil compaction to beneficiary clients, but it can also be used to quantify that compaction to assist with management decision making. Finally, we are considering purchasing three SARE publications for beneficiaries to use as references for technical assistance and planning their events.  The references are Building Soils for Better Crops, Managing Cover Crops Profitably and Crop Rotation on Organic Farms.

Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

7. 20 Beneficiaries will utilize activity stipends of up to $300 each on a reimbursement basis to support and/or enhance their local soil health related educational events to include presentations, workshops, field days, tours, demonstrations and on-farm technical assistance. Stipends may be used for, but not necessarily limited to the following: speaker expenses; demonstration materials; transportation for tours; meeting room expenses; portable rest rooms; field analyses/assessments; printing costs for hand-outs/resources, agendas, etc.; signage materials; and digging of soil pits. Beneficiaries will be required to complete a request form prior to their event outlining the activity, expected attendance, what the stipend will be used for with estimated cost. For reimbursement beneficiaries will submit a completion form itemizing expenses incurred with receipts provided, final attendance, a copy of the activity’s agenda, and photographs.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
86
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
3
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
January 12, 2021
Accomplishments:

In order to be able to provide reimbursements for events, a number of activities had to occur. 1) A committee meeting was held in February 2019 to determine what qualified as an event. 2) a webinar training was held on May 23rd to provide expectations to the beneficiaries on what qualifies as stipend eligible event.  During this webinar, we also discussed tips for hosting events. 3) A stipend request form was created in order to pre-approve stipends. See SARE AFT Stipend_Request_Form_052319-FILLABLE. 4) a reimbursement form was created the infrastructure for stipends. See SARE AFT Stipend_Expense_Form_052319_FILLABLE. 5) an outreach and technical assistance tracking tool was created and shared for beneficiaries to track their outreach. See SARE AFT Outreach and TA TrackingMaster. The training and resources are all  available online at https://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

Although several beneficiaries have conducted their own local soil health related education events, we will likely have just three stipend reimbursement requests.  Several events had been planned by beneficiaries but then canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Two workshops that requested reimbursement were held prior to COVID-19 restrictions so there are pictures of folks attending those events:

Engagement to Support Action 3 - T Kautz Pics

Engagement to Support Action 4 - Darleen K.M Stipen Pics

The third workshop, held in August of 2020, was virtual so a copy of the announcement is attached instead.

Engagement to Support Action 5 – Licover crop field day 082020

The virtual event was recorded and links were made available for future viewing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYMR64L1TDU  (Debbie Aller - summer cover crops) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZI0OSUKWEU (Joseph Amsili - cover crop roots)

Stipends were used for things like demonstration plot materials, transportation to and from demo plots and meeting room expenses for field days.  

Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

VERIFICATION
8. The 20 service provider beneficiaries will complete a quarterly progress report template to assess what they have learned, experiences gained, and updates their training needs; and to track and report on their educational and technical assistance activities including: type of event or assistance, number of farmers/service providers attending, types of farms, acres farmed, and if the farmer conducts a soil health assessment, develops a soil health plan, and/or implements a soil health practice.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
16
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
June 12, 2020
Accomplishments:

A Tracking Tool was created and a webinar training was conducted for how to use the template on June 20, 2019. Part of the tracking tool includes a section with 6 questions to be answered by the beneficiaries as part of a progress report.  Requests for reports were due in August 2019 and March 2020. 16 of the 20 potential beneficiaries submitted reports. However, only 17 officially remain in the program. The other part of the tracking tool had tabs for event registration, event sign-in, and tracking for technical assistance and any media outreach that occurred.  

Verification materials are available at http://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

A series of interviews were conducted with 14 of the remaining 17 beneficiaries between June 1st and 12th, 2020.  At that point, all project participants were a few months into the COVID-19 restrictions, and heading into the outreach season. The purpose of the calls was to check-in to see how the beneficiaries were holding up under the restrictions, and if they still held employment and expected to maintain employment. Given that everyone we spoke with were planning to remain employed, we furthered the discussion by going through their previously described and shared tracking tool to assess experiences gained and to track and report on their educational and technical assistance activities including: type of event or assistance, number of farmers/service providers attending, types of farms, acres farmed, and if the farmer conducts a soil health assessment, develops a soil health plan, and/or implements a soil health practice.  Since those interviews, there was little activity due to both the completion of the training courses and to COVID-19 restrictions. A summary of their tracking is in Performance Target Outcomes

Some highlights from the reports include:

“The training's have made myself more aware of the benefits of no-till, cover crops, etc, and in return I am more open and comfortable talking to producers about trying more cover crops and no-till practices.”

“I was able to convince a large grower to seed 70 acres of prevented plant ground to crimson clover. The training gave me the confidence to recommend this. I focused on soil health and not strictly on dollars”

Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

9. The 20 service provider beneficiaries complete a program exit survey to assess the impacts of the project on their work with farmers regarding soil health.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
7
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
24
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
October 5, 2020
Accomplishments:

As part of the post-program assessment, we entered into a collaboration with Jenny Berkowitz, a graduate student at Cornell University. The goal of her collaboration was to collect exit interviews that assess the increased confidence and ability to adopt soil health practices as a result of the Soil Health Specialist Program. This collaboration was mutually beneficial, facilitating Jenny’s research in extension techniques related to soil health practice adoption. She conducted 24 interviews with both the participants and facilitators from the 2019 program, reaching all but four of the participants. The analysis of these interviews will yield valuable information about the aspects of the program that best enabled confidence in soil health knowledge and intention to adopt soil health practices, and the tools needed to better address future participants interests and needs.

Interviews covered topics ranging from general impressions of the program to the interviewees own personal and professional adoption of soil health practices. Questions surrounding general impressions of the program were focused on the relevance of information, effectiveness of information delivery, and the participants change in confidence in the subject. Questions about personal and professional adoption of soil health practices assessed changes in the perceived barriers to reduced tillage and cover crops on their own, or their client’s farms, before and after their participation in the program. As a whole, the interviews focused on characterizing the participant’s knowledge, skills, intentions and attitudes towards soil health.

The graduate student is currently working on analyzing the results of the study and hopes to provide concrete information about changes in knowledge, skills, intentions, and attitudes towards soil health practices as a result of the Soil Health Specialist Program. Interviews have all been transcribed and will be coded qualitatively using Atlas-Ti. Results should be available in the coming months, and details will be shared with the Project Leader and the American Farmland Trust.

Though the interview transcripts are still being coded and analyzed, overwhelming impressions from the interviews revealed satisfaction with the information provided, farm experiences and network possibilities. Most participants stressed the importance of the diverse array of participants and facilitators, many of whom had not met each other before. This diverse group brought a wide range of viewpoints, knowledge bases and opportunities for the participants to not only network, but also find increased relevance in agricultural practices they would not have originally considered. Many participants made efforts to use the information from the program, such as hosting a conference or farm day, suggesting a soil health practice to a client, or most often commented, demonstrating the breakdown of cotton underwear due to microbial activity. Generally, the interviews conducted by the graduate student highlighted how the Soil Health Specialist Program was an effective program to increase confidence in encouraging the adoption of soil health practices.

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:

6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 On-farm demonstrations
5 Online trainings
4 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Tours
37 Webinars / talks / presentations
10 Workshop field days
2 Other educational activities: webpages were created:
https://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/
https://farmland.org/project/new-york-soil-health-specialists/

Participants in the project’s educational activities:

5 Extension
9 NRCS
12 Researchers
7 Nonprofit
15 Agency
12 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
18 Farmers/ranchers
354 Farmers
71 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Learning Outcomes

24 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills and/or attitudes as a result of their participation.
7 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
20 Ag service providers intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned through this project in their educational activities and services for farmers
Key areas in which the service providers (and farmers if indicated above) reported a change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness::

As part of the post-program assessment, we entered into a collaboration with Jenny Berkowitz, a graduate student at Cornell University. The goal of her collaboration was to collect exit interviews that assess the increased confidence and ability to adopt soil health practices as a result of the Soil Health Specialist Program. She conducted 24 interviews with both the participants and facilitators from the 2019 program, reaching all but four of the participants. The analysis of these interviews will yield valuable information about the aspects of the program that best enabled confidence in soil health knowledge and intention to adopt soil health practices, and the tools needed to better address future participants interests and needs. We expect to have the final results of her report for the final SARE report in February.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
20
Target: actions the service providers will take:

Twenty (20) agricultural service providers trained in advanced soil health principles and practical methods for using crop rotations, cover crops, reduced tillage, nutrient management and other practices on diverse farms across New York will teach 400 farmers operating 80,000 acres about soil health techniques and how to successfully integrate them into their production systems.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
400
Target: amount of production these farmers manage:

80,000 acres

Verified: number of service providers who reported taking actions to educate/advice farmers:
15
Verified: number of farmers the service providers reported educating/advising through their actions:
550
Verified: amount of production these farmers manage:

15 Ag Service Providers provided direct education and technical assistance to 550 farmers covering 155,403 acres.

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:
  • 196 Consultations
  • 8 On-farm demonstrations
  • 6 Published press articles/newsletters
  • 16 Webinars/talks/presentations
  • 16 Workshops/field days
  • 4 o Long Island Soil Health Champion video - www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FDnCCSiBHI
    o Harris Seeds Earth Day Campaign - Harris Seeds donated revenue made from the earth day weekend to AFT. We also promoted the AFT Soil Health Trainers program so more farmers are aware of the services that AFT provides and helps push research on.
    o Empire Farm Days Soil Health Center 2020 Virtual Soil Health Cover Crop Tour Parts 1 and 2 - youtu.be/fAiz1B9Y0i8; https://youtu.be/I7J5aiHsUXc
    o Western New York Soil Health Alliance Annual Meeting Demonstration Plots -
    youtu.be/dc2hWBOq_Kw
15 Total number of 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
354 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

A Tracking Tool Template was created and shared via email with all original 20 beneficiaries. A webinar training was conducted for how to use the template on June 20, 2019. Part of the tracking tool includes a section with 6 questions to be answered by the beneficiaries as part of a progress report. The tracking tool also includes tabs for beneficiary-hosted event registration, event sign-in, and tracking for technical assistance and any media outreach that occurred. 

Requests for reports were due in August 2019 and March 2020 and 16 of the 20 original beneficiaries submitted reports. In addition, a series of interviews were conducted with 14 of the remaining 17 beneficiaries between June 1st and 12th, 2020. In those interviews, project leaders went through each individual’s tracking tool to directly ask questions about experiences gained and to get up to date with tracking and reporting their educational and technical assistance activities including: type of event or assistance, number of farmers/service providers attending, types of farms, acres farmed, and if the farmer conducts a soil health assessment, develops a soil health plan, and/or implements a soil health practice. The oral answers were transferred to the individual’s tracking tool by project leaders after the interview.

In the end, 15 Ag Service Providers held 16 events, directly reaching 354 farmers (managing 87,773 acres) and 1,356 other stakeholders. Furthermore, the beneficiaries conducted technical assistance with 196 farmers influencing 68,530 acres. Therefore the total number of farmers directly reached was 550 representing 155,403 acres. There were three main challenges to tracking and achieving our targeted outcomes:

Tracking Data:  Despite creating a tracking tool and providing/recording training for the use of the tool, and despite numerous reminders via emails, phone calls and at each training, it was challenging to get beneficiaries to track and report their outreach and technical assistance to the detail that is required for reporting. It is believed that farmers especially do not want to share detailed information about their operation, not trusting that the information will remain secure or knowing what the end result will be.  In the cases where detail data was missing such as the number of farms or the number of acres per farm, assumptions were made using existing data. One assumption was that for each field day, workshop, webinar, 25% of participants were farmers. This assumption was based off of attendees from events that were well documented.  The second assumption was the number of acres per farm. This depended on the US Census data for the average farm size in the region where the event was held.

COVID-19: The number of outreach and technical assistance events from beneficiaries was significantly challenged by the COVID-19 restrictions. These restrictions occurred in the final full year of the project, when beneficiaries were slated to do their outreach and technical assistance. A number of events were planned for but eventually canceled because they could not be held. In cases where we could, project leaders provided support for virtual meetings.  For example, Lorie Ames planned for an in person field day but ended up switching to a virtual presentation that was pre-recorded and shared with 75 people at the Western New York Soil Health Alliance annual meeting: https://youtu.be/dc2hWBOq_Kw

Beneficiary Attrition: One final piece that was unexpected was that beneficiaries would drop out of the program. In total 3 people left the program due to career changes, which is 15% of the total participants. Each outgoing beneficiary expressed interest in continuing but their new employer didn’t support the time away or their position was no longer in the field. This impacted the potential to reach our performance targets due to the smaller pool of beneficiaries to conduct education events and advise farmers.

Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers

Target #1

Target: number of farmers who will make a change/adopt of practice:
50
Target: the change or adoption the farmers will make:
Fifty (50) farmers informed by our beneficiaries will conduct a soil health assessment, develop a soil health plan, or implement a soil health practice such as cover cropping, reducing tillage, crop rotation, and/or nutrient management trial or demonstration.

Additional Project Outcomes

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$20,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
7 New working collaborations
Additional Outcomes Narrative:

To date there has been at least 7 new working collaborations. American Farmland Trust (AFT) is working very closely with the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health Program for the first time. In addition, AFT has been working closer with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts as each workshop has been planned and implemented. So far we have worked closely with the Cortland Soil and Water Conservation District and the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District. Finally, AFT has been working closely with the New York Soil Health Initiative for presentations and guidance on curriculum development. For workshop four we partnered closely with Cornell Cooperative Extension to coordinate training locations and accommodations, as well as leading and facilitating group discussions. We also partnered with Stone House Grains and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub for the first time to coordinate trainings and tours that were held on their farms.

An additional outcome so far has been the professional development that is occurring outside of the learning. Beneficiaries have been required write their own biographies, in many cases for the first time. They will also be given the opportunity for getting a professional “head shot” taken for professional use, either with their biography or other future engagements. There is also a lot of networking going on that will provide synergy for soil health in the future. As the workshops unfold, we are adding evening activities which give the participants additional opportunities to interact, get to know each other better, build a sense of community, and strengthen bonds. This will help to coordinate resources and efforts in the future as folks are anticipated to get more comfortable reaching out to one another on a professional level.

An additional outcome in 2019 was the creation and execution of three training webinars to supplement the workshops:

  • Webinar 1 – Expectations of hosting soil health workshops and providing technical assistance (20 in attendance)
  • Webinar 2 – Cover crop mixtures with Dr. Charles White of Penn State Univ.; Review of Soil Health Workshop Stipend Requests (20 in attendance)
  • Webinar 3 – Cornell Soil Health Program Research Update and Check-in (20 in attendance)

Using the webinar application “Zoom” has proven very useful and effective at conducting additional learning opportunities. Not only is it easy for the beneficiaries to engage, but it is also very easy to record each session and post it online for later reference.  The implementation of the webinars stemmed from the need to keep beneficiaries connected between workshops and to provide training that is more focused on administration, not necessarily soil health.  Administrative topics are important, but distract from soil health information so they are good to provide in one-hour intervals rather than  using valuable training and networking time when we are all together in person. See attached agendas for the workshops. All content generated from the workshops such as agendas, presentation slides, documents and videos are available online at: https://soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/workshops/american-farmland-trust/

An exciting outcome in 2020 was that the Soil Health Specialist Training program received additional support from the New York Soil Health Initiative.  This support provided for the continuation of the collaboration between American Farmland Trust and Cornell University to expand upon the growing network of agricultural service professionals to support and educate farmers to improve soil health on their land.

In June 2020 a recruitment announcement for program applications was sent out to agricultural service providers through the List-servs of organizations such as New York Agri-Business Association, NE Region CCA, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NY Soil & Water Conservation Districts, AEM Planners, NOFA-NY and others. The flyer included a link to where individuals could apply to the professional opportunity. The announcement and application instructions were posted on the New York Soil Health Website. Additionally, an announcement was made on AFT's social media.

Both the flyer and the website recruitment materials clearly stated performance targets and expectations for our beneficiaries. The workshop will entail a small registration fee of $100, but the project will pay for travel-related costs and food. Approximately 30 service providers from Agri-business, farmers, cooperative extension, soil and water conservation districts, and non-profits completed the application process. There were applications from both the private sector and from the public with an impressive geographic distribution among the applicants.  The application included a pre-training skills assessment and questions to identify interested farmers they currently advise who they can further assist on soil health issues if selected for training program.  Participants will have to commit to assisting with a soil health workshop or documenting technical assistance surrounding soil health practices.  Ultimately, 27 applicants were chosen to participate in the program.

The new Specialist trainees will get an in-depth understanding of what soil health is, how it can be measured and monitored over time, and how soil health can be improved through holistic, adaptive, and data-driven soil management. Using lessons learned from the current program project leaders have made the second round of training shorter. COVID-19 restrictions have also made this program virtual. Our first meeting was held on October 22 and 23, 2020 and followed a modified curriculum to workshops 1 and 2 of the original cohort. (See Additional Outcomes Narrative Workshop 1 Final Agenda 102220) Topics included Soil Health Principles, Soil Health Assessment, Soil Biology and Ecology, Cropping Systems and Cover Crop Benefits, Species Selection and Mixtures. The second and final training will be held April 8 and 9, 2021. Topics will include Reduced Tillage, Nutrient Management, and Communicating Soil Health Principles. Project leaders are currently planning a field day but this workshop may turn virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions. The continuation and expansion of the program to 27 additional beneficiaries will significantly increase the impact of this project, although final outcomes will be measured outside the timeframe of this grant.

Another outcome was the additional training of Soil Health Specialists Lorie Ames and Jodi Putman on taking the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health (CASH) tests in the field on May 13, 2020.  The CASH test results can be used to inform farmers on targeted management to improve soil health. It can also be used as an outreach tool to show farmers and ag service providers that it is important to look beyond simply testing nutrient levels in their soils by considering physical and biological properties as well.

Finally, a Soil Health Specialist webpage was created that describes the program and each workshop and provides a list of beneficiaries by region with contact information:

https://farmland.org/project/new-york-soil-health-specialists/

Success stories:

A post-workshop survey was handed out at the workshop. One beneficiary took the time to send an email with the following praise:

“I was very happy with this session. I took a lot away regarding cover crop species and their specific traits. I feel that the data was presented in a way in which we all understood it. Seeing the different plants, with their root structures really helped me. I feel a lot more confident in advising growers on cover crops. I felt that the lower point / activity ratio was perfect. With the presenters I felt that there was a good balance of academic, ag business and grower input. The field day at King Agra was awesome. Everyone got to see the different cover crops in their various stages of growth. The data presented was easy to digest and everyone was more than helpful.”

A list of resources was shared after the second workshop. One participant had this to share via email:

“Thank you to everyone for putting this together. What a gem! I began to go through the document without previewing it; thinking I would be able to review and provide feedback. The breadth of experience and knowledge of our instructors is evidenced in the scope of this collection! Needless to say, I cannot add anything at this time. I look forward to applying what is contained in it. Personally, I find it astounding. Coming from the background I have, and with what I am learning, I see many opportunities, many challenges, and am more aware of how our historical and current practices interact with the soil.”

One success story that highlights the power of the program is that one of the program beneficiaries, Morgan Hartman, was invited to present at another beneficiary’s (Ann Marie Calabaro) Soil Health Field Day. Morgan raises and sells grass-fed beef and Registered Angus breeding stock and uses a Holistic Planned Grazing approach on his farm to develop healthy soils, plants, animals and people by incorporating a decision-making process that integrates financial, social, and environmental goals. He shared this approach to a group of grazers at the Long Island field day entitled, “Soil Health in Pastures and Pasture Management,” held September 23, 2019 at Acabonac Farms in Middle Island, NY.  (Long Island Field Day - pasture management agenda) Ann Marie met Morgan and learned of his expertise through networking during this project’s trainings. Not only was Ann Marie planning her own field day, but she used connections she made during the Soil Health Specialist trainings to enhance her event and bring a specialist to this area of New York that typically gets passed over. Without the trainings and the networking opportunities they provide, this connection would not have occurred, and the Long Island farmers would have missed out.

Another success story is from Soil Health Specialists, Lori Ames. In the ninth grade, Lorie caught a glimpse of her future career during a science class presentation that showed a crop technician out in the field with a farmer. Lorie hadn’t grown up on a farm herself, but she was surrounded by several dairy farms growing up. “Little did I know when I was hiking in the corn field that’s what I’d be doing for my future job,” Lorie says.

Passionate about education, Lorie went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Biology from SUNY Geneseo, along with three state certifications for adolescent, elementary, and biology education. When she struggled to find a stable teaching position, an opportunity came for her to work for Western New York Crop Management Association, or WNYCMA, as a summer scout. It was there that she met Dave DeGoyler, who became her boss and mentor. At the end of the season, she accepted a full-time position as a field technician, and has since moved up to become a junior crop consultant, working towards becoming a crop consultant.

In the spring of 2018, Dave recommended that Lorie should apply for the “Practical New York Soil Health Specialist Training,” a program with American Farmland Trust and Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health Program, sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education  (NESARE) program. She was excited for the opportunity, but a little skeptical given her existing knowledge of field crops and soil health.

“I was humbled by my experience,” Lorie says. “I realized that I knew bits and pieces, but I really didn’t know the meat of it, or even the origin, and it was neat to see that progress before my eyes.” When Lorie became a junior crop consultant, her role went from being solely in the field to now building relationships with the farmers who steward those fields and helping them to make decisions for their farm. In a way, she has come full circle in her journey to teach biology. 

This is Lorie’s favorite part of the job, but also one that was less familiar than dealing directly with plants and soil. “The most valuable thing I gained from the program is confidence,” Lorie says. “Prior to this, if I was questioned by a grower, I’d be a little intimidated. Now I feel really equipped to give advice and lead them in the right direction.”

Lorie was looking forward to hosting her very first soil health field day in August 2020 as part of the training program, but COVID-19 complicated her plans. With the support of AFT, Cornell, NESARE, and her own advisory committee, the event pivoted to a virtual format touring the cover crop plots, which can be viewed online.

Starting her job, Lorie has been fortunate to work with several innovative growers, including dairy and crop farmer Jay Swede of Swede Farm LLC, a farm in AFT’s Genesee River Demonstration Farms Network. But Lorie has begun helping farmers who are on the fence and need more information on the benefits of investing in soil health practices. “The hardest part is convincing growers that even if the upfront costs are a bit much for some, that it is actually worth it as you progress through it,” Lorie says.

The networking aspect of the soil health specialist training was another valuable piece of the puzzle for Lorie. As part of a cohort of 20 participants from all across the state, she was able to interact and learn from others in the industry, including Debbie Aller, PhD, of Cornell Cooperative Extension Suffolk County, who shared the unique challenges of soil health on Long Island with the group.

Looking forward, Lorie will continue to implement what she has learned in the classroom back in the field with Western New York farmers. “We’re really big on cover crops and inter-seeding right now,” Lorie says. “It’s really neat to be on the forefront of that.” But leading the way also means learning as you go. One of the biggest takeaways for Lorie was how to customize cover crops to the specific farms and their soil’s constraints. “Cover crops were something that people were just throwing out there and seeing what happened,” Lorie says. “Learning what we learned through the Soil Health Specialist Training Program showed me that you could design different cover crop programs for different growers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, it’s definitely unique to the farm.”

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Challenges

The first challenge was a major change of staff from Jeff Ten Eyck to Aaron Ristow. Although Aaron was already part of the project with Cornell, it left only one person for about a month to work on the curriculum development. Cornell replaced Aaron fairly quickly and the project got back up to speed by the completion of the second workshop.

The lack of staff in August and September posed a challenge, especially with the first two workshops planned and executed within a month of each other. In addition to planning and coordinating the two events, there was a lot of “infrastructure” (e.g training plans, acceptance letters, beneficiary and speaker biographies, etc.) that needed to be developed. This required a lot more time from the Project Coordinator than was budgeted. With the help of the Cornell staff, the project is back on track for time budgeted again.

In the grant writing phase, it was thought that planning workshops around existing events would make it easier to coordinate and execute. However, a lesson learned from the first two workshops is that is not necessarily the case. With Workshop One, there ended up being costs for registration that, in retrospect, wasn’t valuable. In Workshop Two, some effort was put in to coordinating with a long-standing field demo in November, but there ended up being personnel and logistical challenges to coordinating with that event so the Team planned our own training and field day.

In 2019 we again saw evidence that planning workshops around existing events doesn’t necessarily make facilitating the coordination of the events simpler. However, due to the large availability of reduced tillage equipment all in one location, Workshop 3 was planned in conjunction with the 2019 Empire Farm Days. Once again we found that, although it was great to have equipment and demos readily accessible, having presentation available to the public that may or may not have been interested in all of the presentation was distracting. Members of the public came and went as they pleased, often with children, and this was distracting to the beneficiaries. Although workshops 4 and 5 are open to the public, they are not being advertised to a wider audience.

We found that coordinating winter meetings were very difficult because there are a lot of long-standing well-attended trainings already being conducted in the Northeast. The beneficiaries in our group have regularly attended these meetings or host them themselves and so 5-10 beneficiaries simply were unavailable to attend a February or March meeting. April, May and June are also very full for this group as they begin planning and planting for the season.  Mid-summer and early fall meetings were the best attended.

This relates to the lesson that hosting 5 trainings over 18 months is challenging to both the beneficiaries and the project team.  It is a challenge for the beneficiaries to get away for a few days every other month for a year, especially during ‘training season’ and the growing season. In addition, we have seen beneficiary careers change over the 18 months to the point where 4 of them have completely dropped out of the program. Organizing that many workshops over a short period of time also spreads the resources of the project team.  Therefore it is recommended that there are fewer trainings over a shorter time period. Perhaps two 3-day trainings, one in the fall and one in the following spring would be sufficient.

Tracking Data:  Despite creating a tracking tool and providing/recording training for the use of the tool, and despite numerous reminders via emails, phone calls and at each training, it was challenging to get beneficiaries to track their outreach and technical assistance to the detail that is required for reporting. It is believed that farmers especially do not want to share detailed information about their operation, not trusting that the information will remain secure or knowing what the end result will be.  In the cases where detail data was missing such as the number of farms or the number of acres per farm, assumptions were made using existing data. One assumption was that for each field day, workshop, webinar, 25% of participants were farmers. This assumption was based off of attendees from events that were well documented.  The second assumption was the number of acres per farm. This depended on the US Census data for the average farm size in the region where the event was held.

COVID-19: The number of outreach and technical assistance events from beneficiaries was significantly challenged by the COVID-19 restrictions. These restrictions occurred in the final full year of the project, when beneficiaries were slated to do their outreach and technical assistance. A number of events were planned for but eventually canceled because they could not be held. In cases where we could, project leaders provided support for virtual meetings.  For example, Lorie Ames planned for an in person field day but ended up switching to a virtual presentation that was pre-recorded and shared with 75 people at the Western New York Soil Health Alliance annual meeting: https://youtu.be/dc2hWBOq_Kw

Beneficiary Attrition: One final piece that was unexpected was that beneficiaries would drop out of the program. In total 3 people left the program due to career changes, which is 15% of the total participants. Each outgoing beneficiary expressed interest in continuing but their new employer didn’t support the time away or their position was no longer in the field. This impacted the potential to reach our performance targets due to the smaller pool of beneficiaries to conduct education events and advise farmers.

Successes

The most frequent feedback that we have gotten through the post-workshop surveys is that the beneficiaries have appreciated and learned the most from the hands-on training such as our participatory “Soil Health Scenarios” small groups and the Cover Crop Demonstration.

In Workshop One we ended the classroom session by breaking the 40 participants into groups of five and giving them different scenarios where a farm has a particular set of soil health constraints reported in the Cornell Soil Health Report. The group discusses the potential management solutions and develops a Soil Health Management Plan (see attached 40-Soil-Health-Management-Scenarios-with-Field-Exercises). Breaking into small groups creates opportunities for more people to speak. Participants can also learn from each other as they discuss and, sometimes, debate practical management solutions. The exercise ends with a spokesperson describing the problems and the solutions their group came up with.

In Workshop 2, we showcased the hands-on Cover Crop Demonstration where 20 varieties of cover crops were planted in plastic tubes and grown in a greenhouse for 5 weeks prior to the workshop. The cover crops were brought to the workshop and pulled out of the tubes so that participants could see the bare root systems of each of the plants. The beneficiaries had the opportunity to pick up and examine all of them in one place. This was followed-up by a discussion of each plant, one-by-one, led by Cornell’s Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab Assistant Professor Mathew Ryan. 

 

Another frequent compliment on our workshops are the two field-days we held, both at operating farms. One participant commented that “being out in the field puts everything we are learning into a real-world perspective.” In Workshop One, the farmer gave us a description of his farm and the soil health practices he has implemented, challenges resulting from it, and benefits he has received. We then split the group up where half went to a field pit to learn about identifying soil health indicators in the field and using soil pits as a teaching and demonstration tool. The other half learned about how to take a Cornell Soil Health sample in the field. Workshop Two incorporated a cover crop demonstration of 35 plots of cover crops planted on three dates with different species and mixtures. A discussion of each plot was led by a German group which provided a unique perspective.

Beneficiaries have made several comments about the quality of our speaker selection, the topics they are covering, and how it has been organized. This includes our hour-long farmer panel in Workshop Two. One participant said that the farmer panel brought in “real farmers, real issues, real successes”. Another participant said that they appreciated the interaction with the speakers. And finally, one comment was that they “liked how the presenters spoke on something different about the topic but it all tied together.”

As previously described, a final success to date has been the professional development that is occurring outside of the learning. Writing biographies, taking professional headshots, and networking during the workshops are examples of this. To increase networking, we are adding evening activities which give the participants additional opportunities to interact, get to know each other better, build a sense of community, and strengthen bonds. This will help to coordinate resources and efforts in the future as folks are anticipated to get more comfortable reaching out to one another on a professional level. One participant said “Nice to have participants from all over New York State with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives!” (see attached surveys 30a WS2 Evaluation_Summaries 102418).

In 2019, we have seen how networking is paying off through professional connections and it is providing synergy for soil health in the future. As the workshops have occurred, we find that adding events like evening activities and webinars in between workshops have given participants additional opportunities to interact, get to know each other better, build a sense of community, and strengthen bonds. This is helping to bring a sense of a network to soil health professionals in New York, and is beginning to pay off as beneficiaries have begun inviting each other to present at each other’s Soil Health events.

This project is demonstrating how it can work and that it has multiple benefits. As the program is developing and more people hear about its impacts, there is a demand for this training to continue. There is currently talk within the New York State Soil Health Working Group about how to fund this program in the future.

In 2020, a major success, previous described in the “Additional Outcomes” section, was that the Soil Health Specialist Training program received additional support from the New York Soil Health Initiative.  This support provided for the continuation of the collaboration between American Farmland Trust and Cornell University to expand upon the growing network of agricultural service professionals to support and educate farmers to improve soil health on their land. Approximately 30 service providers from Agri-business, farmers, cooperative extension, soil and water conservation districts, and non-profits completed the application process. There were applications from both the private sector and from the public with an impressive geographic distribution among the applicants.  The application included a pre-training skills assessment and questions to identify interested farmers they currently advise who they can further assist on soil health issues if selected for training program.  Ultimately, 27 applicants were chosen to participate in the program.

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.