Management and Evaluation of Soil Health: Inservice Education for the Mid-Atlantic Region

Final Report for ENE96-026

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1996: $60,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Laurie Drinkwater
Rodale Institute
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Project Information


This project provided extension and NRCS agents with the opportunity to learn the latest information on evaluating and addressing soil health. The goal was to provide agents with the knowledge and tools to incorporate soil health concepts into local program delivery. This was accomplished via in service training workshops, and through the development and dissemination of two educational program packages.

Fifty-nine agents or specialists from nine states were trained in field assessment techniques and basic principles of soil quality during two, 2-day-long workshops held in August 1997 and July 1998. The first educational kit was distributed in July 1999 and included a half hour slideshow with lecture notes, background resources and a packet of soil quality information sheets. The second package (to be distributed in August 2000) consists of a booklet of protocols for conducting soil health demonstrations and a list of background resources. Each demonstration protocol includes a goal, description, materials list, setup instructions, and a results and discussion section.

Follow-up telephone surveys show that participants are using the skills and knowledge they acquired during the training sessions in their day-to-day interactions with clients, as well as for group presentations and field days.

Project Objectives:

1. To provide 50-60 Cooperative Extension staff from the mid Atlantic Region with current and practical knowledge of soil health, especially the connection between organic matter, biological activity, and chemical and physical soil properties.

2. To develop and distribute two packaged education programs for extension staff to use as part of their general clientele educational outreach.


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  • Doug Beegle

Educational Approach

Educational approach:


Primary publicity on the project was through the electronic postings soliciting applicants to attend. The slide show on soil health was put on compact disks and distributed through the SARE office on a request basis and posted to the SARE web site.

No milestones

Performance Target Outcomes

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:


Objective 1.

Provide in service training on soil quality management and assessment to 50-60 extension agents from the mid Atlantic region.

The objective was completed on schedule. A total of 59 agents or specialists were trained in the two workshops held August of 1997 and July of 1998. Participants viewed demonstrations, engaged in small group problem solving, and participated in discussions on many aspects of soil health during the 2-day workshops. Trainers for the workshops included university researchers, extension specialists, and area farmers.

Feedback and suggestions received from participants of the first workshop were used to revise the curriculum of the second. The most significant change made to the second workshop was to increase the amount of time spent in participatory activities such as soil quality assessments and viewing soil health demonstrations. The session on soil health problem solving was eliminated. Also, the evening session with farmers that focused on strategies for educating farmers on soil health was replaced with a discussion of soil myths. The panel was moved to the end of the workshop, using agents with practical experience rather than farmers.

Evaluations indicated that changes made to the format were improvements. The score given to the overall workshop went up from 7.4 to 8.8 (on a scale of 0-10, where 10 was excellent). The range of scores for individual presentations went up as well. In 1997 they ranged from 3.12 to 4.78, and in 1998 the range was from 4.0 to 4.9 (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 was excellent).

Objective 2.
Develop and distribute two packaged education programs.

The first program package, "An Introduction to Soil Health" was distributed in July 1999. The kit included the following: a binder with lists of slides, slide lecture notes, 56 color slides, pre test materials, background resources, and a packet of soil quality information sheets from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The slide show was developed from the information presented at the first training workshop.

The second program package, "Soil Health Demonstration Protocols," is a booklet containing instructions for setting up, conducting, and interpreting soil health demonstrations is scheduled to distributed in August 2000. The 14 demonstrations are grouped into three categories: soil composition, impacts of soil organic matter, and soil biology. The demonstrations are suitable for a wide range of audiences, including farmers, extension educators, schoolteachers, children, and the general public. They range from procedures that are as simple as placing soil clods into water filled fish bowls; to more challenging demonstrations that characterize soil microbial activity. Some can be set up as self guided stations, while others are tailored for hands on and/or field presentations.

Project Outcomes

Future Recommendations

Our experience in conducting the two trainings indicates that workshops on soil health management and assessment are most effective when they include participatory and hands on activities. In the long term, the whole systems approach that is the core of the soil health concept should be integrated into formal training for agricultural professions at land grant institutions.

Potential Contributions

Trainee Adoption and Direct Impact

A follow up telephone survey was conducted in June and July of 2000 to determine the impact of the training and the usefulness of the slideshow. About 80% (47 out of 59) of the workshop participants were surveyed.

Impact of Training Workshops. Ninety six percent of the survey respondents taught the concepts they learned during the workshops to others, and of those who taught, about 49% trained 100 people or more. On average, the audience was: 60% farmers, 12% general public, 8% extension agents, 3% students, and 17% other.

Soil Health Slideshow Rating. Ninety five percent of those who rated the slideshow rated it a four or higher (on a scale of 1 5, where 5 was excellent). About 57% of those who had access to the slideshow presented it to others. Forty three percent of those who presented the slideshow showed it to >100 people. On average, the audience shown the slideshow was: 68% farmers, 2% general public, 6% extension agents, 7% students, and 17% other.

Potential Benefits or Impacts

Agents are better able to promote good organic matter management to the growers they work with. This in turn will lead to more productive and sustainable farms as nutrient efficiency and water dynamics are improved. This project gave agents the tools and knowledge needed to communicate these concepts to their clients.

Feedback from farmers

Four farmers participated in the training workshops. Each expressed his gratitude for being able to participate in the program, both at being able to learn from the presenters and being able to offer their experiences to the attendees.

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.