The Soil Quality Network

Final Report for EW11-021

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2011: $56,992.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Teresa Matteson
Benton Soil and Water Conservation District
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Project Information

Abstract:

In the fall of 2011, the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District received funding from USDA Western SARE to establish the Soil Quality Network (SQN). These components were implemented to support on-the-ground soil quality improvement: (1) two workshops to train agricultural professionals, SQN 2012 and SQN 2013; (2) a database that is connected to an interactive SQN Map that showcases global soil quality efforts including: in-field practices, research, assessment, technical and financial assistance, and more; (3) the SQN website serves as a central hub for communication and resource distribution, and (4) evaluation of this project via workshop questionnaires, email surveys, and telephone interviews with participants. SQN provides agricultural professionals and farmers with access to soil quality resources including: assessment tool information, models for various aspects of program development, soil quality related research, and lessons learned from programs that promote soil quality.

A total of 152 participants attended the two workshops; 24% of the participants (37) attended both events. The SQN Participant Demographics Summary shows a complete breakdown of attendee affiliations.

Project Objectives:

  • Host a Soil Quality Network workshop in 2012 and another in 2013. Each two-day workshop will include field demonstrations and formal presentations.
  • Build a SQN website. The SQN website is hosted on the OSU Small Farms website and features workshops (past and upcoming), a library of presentations, soil quality resources, and the SQN Map. 
  • Build a SQN database. The database showcases soil quality efforts such as in-field practices, research, assessment, technical and financial assistance, and more.
  • Evaluate project. Post event questionnaires, email surveys, telephone interviews, and farmer pre- and post interviews were conducted to guide future programmatic planning.

Introduction:

The Soil Quality Network was created to address a strong need for soil quality assessment tools and education programs to support the work of agricultural professionals. Previous project evaluations revealed that farmers and agricultural professionals were interested in the use of soil quality assessment in their work. Agricultural professionals also indicated that they would participate in an inter-county or state-wide soil quality network or work group. A network was needed to connect agricultural professionals with the wealth of soil management experience and research in support of on-the-ground efforts to revive regard for soil quality on a regional scale. SQN includes a database to showcase global soil quality efforts; two workshops to train agricultural professionals in soil quality assessment, education program development and strategies to support farmers; a website; and evaluation and analysis throughout the project.

The goals for the Soil Quality Network are to:

  • Increase availability of soil quality information globally.
  • Increase knowledge and confidence of agricultural professionals to help farmers and implement soil quality management practices.
  • Increase knowledge of soil quality assessment tools.
  • Increase knowledge on how to provide soil quality education and outreach to local farmers and agricultural professionals.
  • Improve knowledge of site-specific soil quality constraints for agricultural professionals and farmers.
  • Analyze and report for future programmatic planning.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • James Cassidy
  • Amy Garrett
  • Russ Hatz
  • Chad McGrath
  • Jerry Nicolescu
  • Joshua Owens
  • Jim Smith
  • William White

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

  • Hired Amy Garrett, Oregon State University Extension Service Small Farms Educator, as project manager.
  • Worked with an OSU graphic design student to create the SQN logo.

  • Planned and delivered two Soil Quality Network workshops in 2012 and 2013. Visit the SQN Participants Demographics Summary for a breakdown of the affiliations represented by the 152 attendees.
    • SQN 2012, the first workshop for agricultural professionals, was held in Portland, Oregon. This event engaged 104 agricultural professionals and students. Twenty-five speakers presented topics during field demonstrations and formal presentations to increase participants’ knowledge of tools to measure and evaluate soil quality and demonstrate how management practices impact soil quality. SQN 2012 questionnaires provided planning guidelines for SQN 2013.
    • SQN 2013 was the second workshop hosted for agricultural professionals in Troutdale, Oregon. It attracted people from California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The Oregon Society of Soil Scientists (OSSS) teamed up with the Soil Quality Network SQN in 2013 to draw a total of 107 participants. SQN 2013 served as the SQN Map debut. Two tracks were developed for this event, (1) SQN and (2) OSSS, with lectures and field trips tailored specifically for each audience. Many of the presentations are available on the SQN website.

  • Built the Soil Quality Network website
    • Worked with Chrissy Lucas, of OSU Small Farms Program, to design, launch, and maintain the SQN website. This site is intended to make soil quality information globally available and to be a central hub for resources, assessment tools, research and programs that support soil quality practices on the ground.

  • Built the Soil Quality Network Database

    • Worked with Nik Stevenson-Molnar of the Conservation Biology Institute to build the Soil Quality Network database to:

      • Increase availability of soil quality information
      • Build a world-wide network of soil quality enthusiasts
      • Provide brief descriptions of soil quality activities
      • Facilitate connections
      • Stimulate collaboration

    • Defined the following database components:
      • Contact categories
      • Fields or characteristics

    • Created a Qualtrics survey to collect data on soil quality demographic, work, programs, events
    • Linked the survey to Microsoft Access database
    • Invited participants to complete the survey
    • Populated SQN Map using Python and Leaflet with this data

  • SQN Evaluation

    • Worked with Mary Halbeib, Oregon State University Integrated Plant Protection Center evaluation consultant, to develop effective and efficient evaluation formats.
    • SQN evaluation data is available on the SQN website.
    • Throughout the project, evalualtion components included:

      • Written workshop questionnaires
        • Pre and post retrospective questionnaires used a scale from 1 (low) to 7 (high) to assess impacts and provide programmatic direction for SQN 2013.
        • An increase of 2 or more units = significant, 1.5 to 2 units = moderate.

      • Email survey - Due to low 2013 questionnaire responses participants were invited to contribute feedback via online email survey.
      • Telephone interviews
        • 16 participants were randomly selected from workshop registration lists for telephone interviews.
        • Interviews ranged from 1 to 1.5 hours and assessed fulfillment of project logic model short and medium term outcomes.
        • Farmer pre- and post- interviews - Subsequently the Risk Management project (Reduce Agricultural Risk through Soil Health Education) provided the opportunity to collect pre- and post- retrospective feedback from farmers who attended 2014 soil health workshops. These evaluation results will be available December 2014. For more information, contact tmatteson@bentonswcd.org.

Outreach and Publications

A list of soil quality publications can be found on the SQN website.

Outcomes and impacts:

This project began just prior to the launch of the NRCS National Soil Health Initiative. It is difficult to delineate the sole outcomes and impacts of SQN because of overlap with that movement.Outcomes and impacts are listed below:

  • SQN evaluation data, questionnaire results, and phone interview responses can be found on the SQN website.
  • SQN 2012 evaluations indicated that farm tour demonstrations greatly improved participants’ knowledge and confidence to teach soil quality concepts. Based on those findings, soil quality field demonstrations were included in SQN 2013 and SQN 2014 workshops.
  • Evaluations from the 2012 workshop revealed that many attendees did not work directly with farmers, so we collected demographic information on the SQN 2013 evaluations. At SQN 2013, 37% of the questionnaire respondents indicated that they did not have direct interaction with farmers (e.g. phone call, email, farm visits, etc.). The remaining 63% of respondents had at lease some direct interaction with farmers.
  • Questionnaires and email surveys following SQN 2013 revealed that an email listserv is the preferred way to stay connected to SQN activities. The SQN Listserv was created in response to this feedback, has 168 members, is hosted on lists.oregonstate.edu, and was used to promote SQN 2014.
  • Originally the SQN database was intended to build on a previous project, the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant-funded Soil Quality Project, to generate soil assessment reports for farmers. Throughout the 3-year SQN project, agricultural professionals repeatedly stressed the need for access to on-the-ground soil quality work, especially farmers’ soil building practices. To fulfill the proposal logic model outcomes and address this need we revised the database to link to the global SQN Map. Viewers click map pins for contacts, programs, research and events in specific locations.
  • SQN Map went live in March 2014 and 27 contacts are now on the SQN map!
  • As of August 2014 there have been 24,880 visits and 65,208 page views for the SQN Website and Map.
  • 2013 workshop questionnaires revealed a moderate to significant increase in:

    • Knowledge and confidence to use Visual Soil Assessment as a tool for agricultural professionals and farmers.
    • Intention to use the SQN website, submit information to the database, and sustain a network for soil quality.
    • Interest to include soil quality in their work.

  • Phone interviews revealed that agricultural professionals increased their soil quality activities as summarized below:

    • Participants attended subsequent soil health field days.
    • Networking and informal exchange of information between professionals increased.
    • Partnerships were developed to address soil health education and on-farm demonstrations.
    • A farmer authored a journal article about soil health.
    • Agricultural professionals improved their knowledge and understanding of soil function and soil health assessments, which put on-the-ground projects into a bigger perspective and gave them the knowledge and confidence to discuss and promote soil-building practices.
    • Participants collaborated to deliver soil health workshops for professionals and for farmers (e.g., shaped Oregon NRCS Soil Health work, and USDA Risk Management Education Partnerships Program grant. Agreement # 13-IE-53102-129 - Reduce Agricultural Risk through Soil Health Education)
    • Washington State University hosted SQN 2014 workshop on February 13 in Mt. Vernon, WA, which attracted 130 participants (farmers, agency, researchers, students, agricultural professionals), which included hands-on demonstrations, basic soil health concepts, soil health research, and promoted networking for soil health.
    • SQN participant/OSU Student pursued Masters research in soil health and research provided soil quality assessments to 15 farmers.
    • Oregon NRCS staff has been inspired to develop a new version of RUSLE2 (Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation 2) that incorporates soil organic matter estimates from management changes.
    • Visual Soil Assessment (VSA) has been adopted in on-farm research.
    • Participants expanded teaching content to include soil health and soil structure. Soil quality outreach curriculum has been incorporated into on-going programs, for the following audiences:

      • Farmers – Oregon Department of Agriculture Fertilizer Research Grant, 2 Workshops for landowners, OSU Small Farms Conference, Growing Farms Workshop Series for beginning farmers, Small Farms School, West Multnomah SWCD’s Soil School, Extension Field Day, SQN 2014, Cattleman’s Association 2013 Annual Convention, Monument SWCD 2014 Annual Meeting, Living on a Few Acres, Grow the Coast, Risk Management Agency (RMA) project - Reduce Agricultural Risk through Soil Health Education – 17 workshops for more than 580 farmers as of June 2014.
      • Agricultural Professionals – during CONNECT 2014, which is an annual Oregon state-wide SWCD staff training, dedicated a full day, six sessions to soil health education. RMA Soil Health train-the-trainer.
      • Students - RMA funded 5 courses through OSU and public schools (180 contacts as of June 2014).

    • Participants reported the following work with farmers:

      • Cover crop trials, research, on-farm implementation, incentive programs, and technical assistance to understand nutrient contribution from cover crops for reduced fertilizer inputs.
      • Okanogan SWCD in Washington received a REgional Approaches to Climate CHange (REACCH) grant to work with rancher on cover crop trials and started basic soil analysis at their event booth.
      • Continuation of California work on pastured poultry, cover crops and nutrient management.
      • NRCS has written soil quality into conservation implementation strategies and some counties added soil quality as secondary resource concern.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

  • We hosted two Soil Quality Network (SQN) workshops with the Oregon Society of Soil Scientists (OSSS) and the Oregon Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS). SQN 2012 convened 104 soil quality devotees and SQN 2013 convened 107 from Oregon, Washington, Utah, California, Colorado, Ohio and New Zealand. 39 ag professionals attended both the 2012 and 2013 workshop. Participants included members of various affiliations, including Oregon Society of Soil Science and Oregon Soil and Water Conservation Society, government agency staff, and private consultants, as well as twenty-six students from four Pacific Northwest higher education institutions. Special workshop components were incorporated to encourage student attendance and facilitate their interaction with professionals including speed-mentoring and poster sessions. To see pictures from SQN events visit the SQN photo gallery. To view SQN workshops’ attendee affiliation breakdown, visit the SQN Participant Demographics Summary.
  • The Soil Quality Network website was built to serve as a central hub for communication and resource distribution and is hosted by the Oregon State University Small Farms Program. The SQN website also serves as an evolving tool to strengthen global soil quality efforts.
  • We sub-contracted with the Conservation Biology Institute to construct the SQN database. Data entries populate the SQN Map, hosted on the OSU Small Farms website, with the potential to document global soil quality activities.
  • Phone interviews were conducted with 16 SQN workshop participants during year three of this project.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

  • Several SQN 2012 and 2013 participants expressed an interest in hosting a future SQN workshop in their area. This has already happened as SQN 2014 was hosted by Washington State University in Mount Vernon, Washington. 130 participants attended SQN 2014.
  • There are recommendations to rotate the conference location and to hold future events at UC Davis in California, at OSU in Corvallis, Wyoming, Idaho, Tri-Cities in WA, and the West side of Portland.
  • Five participants expressed interest in serving on planning committees for future SQN events.
  • Questionnaires from SQN 2013 revealed that 64% of respondents intended to apply information gained at SQN 2013 in their work weekly or monthly and 15% said that they would apply it in their work everyday.

Future Recommendations

  • 88% of questionnaire respondents said they would like to attend future SQN events. 69% would prefer an annual event and would travel 100 miles or more for a SQN workshop. An annual SQN workshop is recommended for the Western region.
  • Future soil quality education should include field visits and hands-on demonstrations.
  • Target professionals who work directly with farmers. This requires developing partnerships prior to outreach efforts and is a long-term commitment.
  • The SQN Map is a prototype for a valuable tool. Currently a slow manual process links the database to the Map. This system would benefit from funding to upgrade the data entry and mapping technology.
  • Phone interviews define strategies to overcome barriers, missing resources and future needs. These results are summarized on the SQN website evaluation page.

    • Some of the barriers/challenges to outreach efforts and on-the-ground implementation of soil quality include: slug-control research, on-farm trials, farmer-to-farmer information sharing, and cover crop and reduced tillage research.
    • Missing soil quality resources included: trained soil quality educators, education tools, information on the economics of soil health, practices supported by research data.
    • SQN future needs include: more workshops, increased grower involvement, trainings for agency staff on how to work with growers, financial and technical support to keep SQN functioning, soil quality education to urban landowners and students, soil health education and implementation statistics, information on the connection between soil quality and food nutrition and taste.

 

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.