Progress report for ESP20-001
Soil health is increasingly of interest to Washington’s producers, food processors, policy makers, and the general public– as evidenced by the State Legislature’s establishment of the “Washington Soil Health Initiative” in 2019. This initiative will fund research and demonstration of soil health best management practices through a network of long-term agroecological research and extension (LTARE) sites across Washington state’s diverse agricultural systems, as well as a baseline assessment of soil health across the diverse soils, climate, and agricultural systems in Washington. Meanwhile, a regional conference held in 2019 “Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities,” provided some initial training on soil health for regional ag educators, but also provided evidence of a desire for continuing and more in-depth training opportunities to improve the capacity of agricultural professionals in Washington State to respond to inquiries related to soil health.
This project delivers soil health related information via virtual conferences, in-person/online seminars and discussions, and through a field day demonstration and site visit. The result will be increased knowledge of soil health practices, assessment tools, and implications of practices that degrade soil health as well as an increased capacity for agricultural professionals to support producers. Subsequently, producers will increase adoption of practices that maintain or improve soil health.
This proposal has three main objectives:
- Increase the knowledge of soil health principles and practices by agricultural professionals and producers. More specifically, knowledge increases will relate to definitions of soil health, factors that positively and negatively impact soil health, the current state of scientific understanding of soil health, and methods to assess soil health.
- Improve the awareness of soil health. The audience for this objective includes agricultural professionals and producers, but also environmental constituents and the general public.
- Improve the technical capacity of agricultural professionals and producers regarding soil health.
In 2015, the United Nations declared it the International Year of Soils to raise awareness worldwide of the importance that soils play in food security (FAO, 2013). Since 2001, 14 states have passed soil health initiatives to increase adoption of practices that create healthy soils (Lehner and Henderson, 2019). In 2019, Washington joined these states when the Legislature passed the Soil Health Initiative, an ambitious plan that funds initial investments in a statewide network of long-term agroecological research and extension (LTARE) sites across Washington state’s diverse agricultural systems. There is growing awareness amongst producers and the general public of the impact that soil health has on food production, food quality, and environment.
Washington State agricultural goods are valued at over $10 billion that are produced on roughly 14 million acres (USDA NASS, 2018). Additionally, over 300 different commodities are produced within Washington and the state is the number one producer in nine different categories nationally (USDA NASS, 2018). Washington State is climatically diverse with farming that occurs in regions that receive as little as 4 inches of precipitation to as much as 100 inches annually (Yorgey and Kruger, 2017). Management practices that maintain or improve soil health are intrinsically related to the individual cropping system, climate, and scale of the system (Soil Health Institute, 2017). Because of Washington’s diverse climate and commodities, the state’s agricultural systems are particularly in need of tailored soil health outreach.
In March of 2019, a regional event in Pendleton, Oregon documented Pacific Northwest soil health needs and was attended by over 150 stakeholders representing agricultural professionals and others (Saari et al., 2019). Participants stated that they would like to see “enhance[d] communication across sectors and jurisdictional boundaries to keep stakeholders trained and informed” and to “collect, utilize and share information and demonstrate progress” (Saari et al., 2019). More specifically, participants stated they wanted “annual state/regional meetings and group meetings” covering soil health as well as “understanding [the] farmer knowledge base and the potential power of farmer-to-farmer learning sessions” (Saari et al., 2019). This underscores the importance of and desire for the activities outlined in this proposal.
Currently, the understanding of soil health principles and practices are still in the early stage of development in this region. This is the result of several reasons including: the diversity of climates and production systems in the region, historic lack of University research personnel, and the inability to directly transfer knowledge from other regions that have a better understanding of soil health. Recently, several key University research and extension hires have filled the gaps that have added the much-needed capacity to progress knowledge and impact agricultural practices.
The approach used in this project is a live conference format, including hybridized on-line and in-person activities. Between the global health concerns and the increasingly national relevance of SoilCon, the combination approach allows accessibility to numerous regions and reduces the financial barriers of attendance.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Increase the knowledge of soil health principles and practices by agricultural professionals and producers. More specifically, knowledge increases will relate to definitions of soil health, factors that positively and negatively impact soil health, the current state of scientific understanding of soil health, and methods to assess soil health.
This will primarily be accomplished through annual development and presentation of SoilCon, a conference specifically combining research, professional, and industry interests and perspectives.
SoilCon will address the latest research to help people put those production topics into practice for regional systems. SoilCon will explain what metrics are used when assessing soil health, how these may change by production system and region, and management practices to support a resilient soil system. The topics will be relevant to agriculture or natural resource professionals, producers, consultants, university faculty and students, and interested members of the public.
Improve awareness of soil health. The audience for this objective includes agricultural professionals and producers, but also the environmental constituent and the general public.
This initiative, in partnership with the overall goal of the WA Soil Health Initiative, will provide context around why soil health is important, what soil health consists of, and how to create or maintain soil health in various production systems and regions.
We expect healthy soils to be resilient against disturbances such as flooding, drought, or high winds; to support crop production with suitable nutrient, moisture, and physical conditions; to support beneficial biological activity that decomposes crop residues, cycles nutrients, forms soil structure, and helps fight disease; to contribute to environmental sustainability by filtering pollutants and reducing run-off; and to be, for the most part, self-maintaining as a living system with continuous nutrient cycling and soil regeneration. These standards, and surrounding awareness, benefit both production system sustainability and reduce negative externalities on the surrounding ecosystem. Like in the adage “what gets measured gets managed,” an increased awareness of soil health principles leads to the adoption and implementation of practices.
Improve the technical capacity of agricultural professionals and producers regarding soil health.
This will be accomplished through an in-person field day with soil testing guidelines, site management, and no-till equipment demonstrations.
Without technical capacity, principles of soil health cannot be implemented. The increase in the number of programs and funding for soil health projects increases the number of agriculture professionals and producers that are technically capable of implementing these strategies. By presenting both theoretical and practical applications of soil health, ag professionals and producers are better prepared to adapt in the ever-changing environment of agriculture.
Educational & Outreach Activities
COVID-19 delayed the completion of the contract for this project, but our team moved forward with implementation of first annual SoilCon: Washington Soil Health Week using funds from our annual PDP contract, which took place February 8 - 12, 2021. COVID required us to change our plan to host this event on-line rather than in person, but we've taken advantage of this opportunity to invite key speakers from all over the world. We ultimately had 996 registered participants.
For the 2021 event, in the learning outcomes survey we implemented, we asked participants to reflect on knowledge increase, value of the information presented, whether the information informed decision making, quality of presentations, and likelihood of behavior changed due to information presented all on a 5-point scale. Average results were:
Knowledge increase: 4.21
Participation valuable: 4.19
Informed decisions: 3.91
Presentation Quality: 4.41
Behavior Change: 3.74
In the 2022 conference, we centered effort around shorter, focused content. The presentations were relevant to scales of soil health consideration, from global perspectives, to populations, to local soil testing principles. Between our Washington speakers and national presenters, we were able to encompass many perspectives while still staying true to the central theme of soil health metrics and measurement.
In-conference evaluation: After each speaker, attendees received a pop-up survey of six questions. Questions were designed using Western SARE’s KASA (knowledge, attitude, skills, awareness) model for assessing impact. Response rate after each session varied between 13 to 80 respondents.
Respondents ranked the “overall quality” of each presentation within a range of 3.9 to 4.7 (out of 5). The highest ranked presentations were: 1. the soil biology roundtable (4.6), 2. native perspectives (4.6), 3. the grower panel (4.6), and 4. the production system indicators update (4.7). Overwhelmingly, respondents reported an increase in their knowledge of soil health, a shift in attitude, an increase in skillset, the desire to change behavior, and an increase in the ability to make decisions.
The majority of respondents reported learning new information about 1. the definition of soil health, 2. indicators of soil health, 3. practices that maintain or improve soil health, 4. how to access science-based soil health information, and 5. opportunities for further education/training. Less than half of respondents reported learning new information about cost-share/support programs. Other highlights include that 73% of respondents reported feeling inspired to make changes in their recommendations and actions for soil health.
With the additional in-person restrictions from COVID-19 during this project contract, we have shifted focus to primarily online accessible trainings and outreach. Our first conference, SoilCon 2021, showed great success with agricultural professionals, producers, and university affiliates. The online, live conference format allowed for greater regional attendance, with 996 registrants in 2021 and 970 registrants in 2022. There are currently 687 registrants for the 2023 conference, planned for mid-February. The conference has brought together over 65 speakers from across the world and provided insight into topics such as soil health indicators, long-term soil health research, and the current status of soil health in the PNW and U.S. Registrants’ self-reported significant knowledge gain, and a greater likelihood to make informed decisions regarding soil health management in the future.
Positive quotes in response to the question “Has this conference inspired you to make any changes in your actions or recommendations for approaching soil health?” Include:
- Reinforced my idea that rehabilitating the soil is vitally important, that there's no one size fits all approach, and that we are still in the infancy of understanding soil health
- I appreciated the Native American perspectives and hope to learn & incorporate more Tribal Ecological Knowledge into my work
- I will be much more emphatic about maintain/improving soil health when I am requested to provide information to Master Gardener clients.
- Overall, much good information but specifically I will encourage soil testing with more gusto!
- My perspective is broadened on what to include when discussing soil health and the spectrum of approaches used in "sustainable" agricultural practices
- Always add a reminder about soil and soil health each time I consult with a farmer/rancher
None to report at this time.
Face of SARE
We have used SARE logos as part of the advanced promotion for SoilCon and will be utilizing SARE information during the event.