Soil health is defined by the Soil Health Partnership as “the continued capacity of a soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” Management to improve soil health usually involves the incorporation of different sustainable agriculture methods like reduced tillage, cover cropping and crop rotation.
Over the last five years there has been an increase in soil health activities. Though awareness of soil health has increase among scientists, there is need to increase this knowledge among farmers related to how soil health can be measured and improved. Specifically, farmers have identified deficiencies in information on the benefits of soil health practices and how to measure them. Farmers have also indicated a need for locally specific information and many are uninformed about the financial and technical assistance available through NRCS programs.
In Tennessee, there has been uneven adoption of certain sustainable management practices for soil health. This project will focus on local needs identified by Extension agents and a stakeholder group to develop a teaching curriculum and soil health test kit for Extension agents and other local officials, and provide an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to identify the effects of certain management practices in their area through the establishment of demonstration sites.
The goal of Soil SMaRTS program is to engage a representative of institutions (TSU, University of Tennessee, Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts, USDA-NRCS) to:
- Develop a soil health curriculum;
- Implement a hands-on train-the-trainer program;
- Establish demonstration areas.
One trainer workshop will be held in each of the three regions in Tennessee and participants will be provided with the curriculum and a soil health test kit and trained on its use in the field through live, hands-on demonstrations.
Objective 1: Establish a stakeholder advisory group consisting of agents and farmers to provide assistance in planning the overall structure of the curriculum.
Objective 2: Develop a curriculum, training manual and workshop plan for trainers to use as they train farmers.
Objective 3: Establish demonstration areas comparing soil health management practices.
Objective 4: Field test the curriculum and training manual through train-the-trainer workshops and initial questionnaires that focus on content knowledge, potential changes in practice and feedback from the workshop, hands-on activities and demonstration area.
Objective 5: Revise curriculum and workshop activities based on data collected during field testing to produce a final version of the program.
Objective 6: Upload or link revised final version of curriculum and training manual to TSU Cooperative Extension, TACS and SARE websites.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Establish a stakeholder advisory group consisting of agents and farmers to provide assistance in planning the overall structure of the curriculum
A stakeholder advisory group was formed that consisted of three Extension agents (one from each region) and 6 farmers (two from each region). A stakeholder advisory group meeting was held on July 9, 2018 via video conference to discuss the items to include in the soil health curriculum and the soil health test kits. During the meeting, the co-PI and state soil scientist, David McMillen, discussed the curriculum and 3-day course that the USDA NRCS teaches. The meeting was recorded and a link to the recording was provided to all members. A week later, an outline of the modules used in the USDA NRCS course was emailed to the group for comment with an indication of those that were most important to include in our 1-day training. One farmer indicated the need to include cover crop management so this was added into the Tennessee version for the Soil SMaRTS training.
Module topics were identified.
Develop a curriculum, training manual and workshop plan for trainers to use as they train farmers.
A curriculum, training manual and workshop plan were developed. The curriculum consists of PowerPoint slides from the USDA-NRCS soil health training program that have been modified for Tennessee. A training manual with slide notes was developed from these slides along with questions to ask the audience. It also includes an appendix that contains information related to cover crop production, procedures for USDA NRCS soil health measurements, and the Tennessee soil health score card. A copy of this training manual can be found at https://www.dropbox.com/s/gk6bqvtk71jtjq0/Curriculum.pdf?dl=0
The Soil SMaRTS training curriculum was developed.
Build a soil health test kit to be used with the developed curriculum and training manual to enhance learning and provide a tool for participants to use on producers' fields.
A soil health test kit was developed that included the tools necessary for measuring soil pH and EC, soil infiltration rate, and soil temperature. A steel spade was also provided as part of the kit for use in measuring soil physical and biological characteristics related to soil health. Demonstrations of how to use these kits were provided to training participants.
Based on survey results following the trainings, 96% of respondents indicated that the soil health test kit would enhance their ability to provide in-field testing of soil health indicators for farmers.
Establish demonstration areas comparing soil health management practices
Demonstration plots were installed in six different locations in Tennessee. Plots contained either no cover, winter wheat, crimson clover, a 5-way blend (Austrian winter pea, tillage radish, crimson clover, cereal rye, winter wheat), or a 10-way blend (Austrian winter pea, tillage radish, crimson clover, cereal rye, winter wheat, spring oat, annual ryegrass, alfalfa, mustard, turnip). Three of the plots were installed on farmers’ fields (one in each region) and three were installed on research or extension centers (one in each region) where the trainings were held. Contact information for the sites were provided to training participants.
Based on survey results following the training, 81% of respondents indicated that the demonstration areas would enhance their ability to provide programs to farmers on soil health.
Implement a hands-on train-the-trainer program
Field day workshops were implemented on October 4th, 18th, and 30th for the Western, Eastern, and Central Regions of Tennessee. These workshops used the soil health training curriculum, which was provided to all participants, and were located at three of the sites were cover crop demonstration plots were established. All topics of the curriculum were covered by the project team (Jason de Koff, Mike Hubbs, and Danny Morris) in these four hour sessions. Soil health indicators and cover crop management modules were delivered outdoors by the cover crop demonstration plots while the other modules were presented to participants using Powerpoint presentations. A demonstration of the soil health test kit was also provided where participants actively engaged in using their kits to measure soil pH and soil infiltration rates. An evaluation was used to determine the outcomes of the workshop.
Please see the overall evaluation results using the link below.