The Citizen Science Soil Health Project: Does providing annual soil health testing, education and team-building lead to broader adoption of practices which improve soil health? Soil health tests and biological assessments of soil function are not readily adopted by Colorado Front Range growers to change management. Front Range growers are familiar with the concept of “soil health”, but few have implemented soil health practices due to challenging agricultural conditions: a short growing season, high altitude, lack of late season or firm water, poor/alkaline/depleted native soils (1), and high weed pressure. Our Front Range conundrum is that while improving soil health will mitigate many of these challenges, these same challenges make improving soil health difficult to accomplish. The Citizen Science Soil Health Project is a grower-driven project which will use the collective knowledge of the diverse participating growers to apply local solutions to our soil health implementation conundrum. The project will provide soil health tests and annual soil health scores for each participating grower, using the Haney/Phospho-Lipid Fatty Acid (PLFA) soil tests from Ward Labs. During the first 3 years of our project, which are encompassed within this grant request, and continuing for 7 more years after that, participating growers will try to improve their soil health scores through management actions which align with their operation. Annual questionnaires, meetings and classes will encourage team-building, collaboration and information sharing among participating growers. Growers will make key project decisions such as their own soil management choices, timing and location of their own soil testing, the project’s class content, outreach and final report format. Growers will be encouraged to act like scientists: decide what questions they want their soil tests to answer, document what they are doing, understand what their test results mean, change their management based on test results, and track their data to assess management decisions.
- Increase knowledge about soil health and use of soil health tests by Front Range growers.
- By 12/2020, our project’s number of participating growers will increase from 15 to 30.
- By 12/2021, all participating growers will be able to identify 5 factors which could change soil health scores and 2 management practices which could increase their own soil health.
- By 12/2021, 15 participating growers will implement an additional soil management practice to increase their soil health.
- By 12/2021, 10 growers will purchase additional soil health tests at our reduced group research rate.
- Improve key soil health indicators of participating growers.
- Growers’ soil organic matter, soil health scores and days/year of living vegetation covering fields will all trend upward by 2021.
- Strengthen connections between different factions of Colorado’s agricultural community.
- By 12/2021, at least 5 growers will present information to the group on their soil health practices and 4 growers will participate in outreach events.
- By 12/2021, participating growers will jointly approve a final report to Western SARE on the project’s 3-year level of success at achieving our objectives for our 10 year project.
The Citizen Science Soil Health Project is a new 10-year research project which will pay for annual Haney/Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) soil health tests for each participating grower. The Haney test gives each grower an annual soil health score, which growers will try to improve over the 10-year study period. Growers will be compared ONLY to themselves over time, and their individual test results will remain confidential. Growers’ initial soil health scores will vary widely, since each grower’s management and native soils will be very different. The project will track only the relative change in each grower’s soil health score and will not compare growers with each other. However, we will give growers the group’s ranges of results for each data point, so growers can see where they fall within the entire group’s results.
Participating growers have agreed to:
- Participate in the project for 10 years;
- Attend a class on how to take soil samples;
- Take soil samples in the same area at the same time each year;
- Fill out an annual questionnaire;
- Attend one annual potluck meeting covering yearly business, team-building exercises, and a short class, and;
- No shaming/badmouthing of other participating growers.
- Growers can change soil management practices as long as they document what they are doing.
Our annual questionnaire is an important part of our research. Our year-1 pre-soil-testing questionnaire will assess growers’ current knowledge of soil health, current soil management, and current soil testing practices. We will also ask growers to choose an initial question which they want their soil health testing to answer: for instance “Is my current soil management improving my soil health?”, or “What are the effects of my current crop rotation on soil health?” This question will help growers choose the location and timing of their soil sample collection, and will emphasize that they are the investigating citizen scientists.
Subsequent annual questionnaires will ask growers about: their previous year’s soil management; soil inputs such as fertilizers, compost, mulch, cover crops, etc.; days of living cover; the costs per acre of their inputs; tilling methods and timing; water availability and timing; incorporation of animals; effects of above on yield; unusual weather at the soil sampling site; helpful information needed; and preferred meeting times.
We will compile the data from each grower annually into individualized progress reports, with easy-to-read graphics and spreadsheets. The individualized progress report will allow growers to track how their soil health has changed over the project time-frame, what might account for that change, and where they fall within the range of group results.
To accomplish Objective #1, (Increase soil health knowledge and use of soil health tests by Front Range growers), we will offer the following inducements: free annual Haney/PLFA soil health tests (Ward Labs) for 10 years; additional Haney/PLFA soil health tests at 20% discount; a new soil probe; and a $50 stipend for each soil sample collected for the first 3 years of the project. We will solicit new participating growers for the project through year 2. We will include educational material in all questionnaires, newsletters and meetings with participating growers. We will also produce a short annual class as part of each annual meeting. We will continue to raise funds to pay for all 10 years of the project, in order to obtain long-range data. Boulder’s Open Space Departments, Sustainability Office, Farmers Market, Conservation Districts and Chamber of Commerce have all pledged support for the project. Donations from local businesses and research grants will be solicited for additional funding for following years. Success will be measured by the number of participating growers in the project, how many decide to purchase additional soil health tests and the number of growers who implement new soil health management practices.
To accomplish Objective #2 (Improve key soil health indicators of participating growers), we will include educational material about soil health practices in all grower questionnaires, newsletters, meetings and individualized progress reports. We will track, compile and distribute data on soil organic matter, soil health scores and days of living cover. We will ask growers making the largest gains to give short presentations at annual meetings. Success will be measured by our growers’ changes in soil health scores, soil organic matter, and number of days/year of living cover.
To accomplish Objective #3 (Strengthen connections between different factions of Colorado’s agricultural community), we will not tolerate any bad-mouthing of other participants. We will include team-building activities such as “speed-dating”, socializing and meal sharing at each annual meeting (at a grange hall rather than a government office). We will emphasize that no one grower has all the answers, but collectively the group already has almost all the answers. Success will be measured by the number of growers who are willing to talk about their soil health practices with rest of the group and participate in outreach events, and by the ease with which participating growers are able to agree on the 3-year report format and content to Western SARE.
2019 was a busy and successful year for the Citizen Science Soil Health Project. Here are some of our accomplishments:
- We secured funding for the first 4 years of the project.
- We added 18 growers to our original 26 back in 2018, lost 2 growers, and now have 42 growers participating in the project.
- Our first annual meeting in January 2019 was well attended, and growers learned how to take soil samples.
- 39 of our growers completed their baseline questionnaires and successfully collected 1 or more soil samples.
- We sent 85 samples in to Ward Labs for Haney and PLFA testing, compiled the data from their test results, and sent user-friendly results to all our participants.
- Our growers’ 67 samples, plus 21 samples from City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, plus 8 samples from Boulder County Parks and Open Space gave us a database of 96 soil samples.
- We analyzed our baseline data to find overall trends. Our preliminary findings are in the linked file above.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Education for participating producers:
Our project’s on-going annual process of soil testing-> reporting-> self-evaluation-> questionnaire responding-> changing soil management-> soil testing-> etc. is inherently educational for our 15-30 participating growers. Education is integrated into all parts of our project:
- Annual questionnaires will both gather information and educate participating growers. For example, when we ask about water management, we will explain how soil health usually improves faster on irrigated pasture than dry-land range.
- Annual meetings will include classes on various soil health topics. The January 2019 class will cover how to take soil samples. The January 2020 class will cover interpreting test results by staff from Ward Labs. We will videotape classes and put them online. Subsequent years’ classes will be growers’ choice, and may cover: “Applying for Environmental Qualities Incentive Program (EQIP) funding for soil management”; “How to assess your own soil for free”; “A panel discussion on cover-cropping”; “Strategies to reduce tillage”; “Remineralization for depleted soils”; “Key-line plowing to remediate prairie dog infested sites”. Our current participating growers and advisors include experts on these topics.
- Growers’ soil testing results will include educational material on what reported test results mean, normal ranges, and group ranges.
- Growers’ annual individualized progress reports will include educational soil health material.
Educational Outreach to other producers and general public:
Some members of our local public have condemned our participating GM growers’ production methods, and have weaponized previous studies of GM production to malign local growers. As a result, some of our participating growers are understandably hesitant to disclose operational information. Accordingly, we have promised that all reports and outreach must first meet approval from our participating growers. But no matter what our growers eventually approve, we will still be able to report ranges and trends in our data (without identifying information) and we commit to conducting at least 2 outreach events by the end of year-3. To address our growers’ trust/confidentiality issues and to develop local leadership around soil health, we will include both organic and GM participating growers in each outreach event we conduct. We will wait until year-3 to conduct outreach events, to have time to build trust.
Opportunities for outreach to other growers and the general public include:
- Making our video-taped classes available to anyone on-line;
- Local radio interviews with Boulder’s KGNU and Greeley’s Luke Runyon of KUNC’s Harvest Public Media;
- Presentations by our growers at conferences such as Boulder’s Soil Revolution Conference, the Boulder County Ag Forum, local Soil Conservation Service and Water District meetings throughout the year, and the Boulder County Farmers’ Market annual meetings; and
- A field day visit to our healthiest soil growers’ fields in conjunction with Boulder’ annual Soil Revolution Conference.
Additionally, after approval from our participating growers, in year-3 we will upload to the web all the tools we create to implement our project, including:
- Blank pre- and post-testing questionnaire forms used to assess growers’ soil management practices, knowledge and needs;
- Soil sampling instructions and sampling kits;
- Soil testing processes and blank reporting forms with explanatory material; and
- Format of individualized yearly progress reports to participating growers.
These formatted forms will include questions, explanatory material, instructions and graphics, but no results, answers or information from participating growers. These forms will help other producers replicate our project in other places.
Educational Outreach Timetable
- Classes, educational materials for participating growers: January of 2019, ’20, ‘21
- Test results, explanatory material, individualized progress reports: Summer/Fall 2019, ’20, ‘21
- 2+ outreach events conducted by 12/2021.
- Forms and tools online by 12/2021.
- 3-year Western SARE report compiled by 12/2021.
March 2020 Update
- Our first annual meeting in January 2019 was well attended, and 25 growers learned how to take soil samples.
- Our growers each received their test results in two different ways: the PDF from Ward Labs, and a 6-page user-friendly spreadsheet with an explanation of their test results. This User-Friendly Haney plus PLFA Results Form (SampleHaneyPlusPLFAResultsExplanations.pdf) includes normal ranges and explanations for each value. Additionally, values are color coded (red=concerning, yellow=average, green=good) so that growers can easily scan the results and pick out areas of concern. An example of this form is included in our “Products”.
- Our growers completed their year-end Farm Record Sheets by the end of 2019. We have used these sheets to compile grower data on: days of living cover, tons of organic matter inputs, days of animals on the land, days of water availability, and a tillage intensity index. This information will allow us to provide a more in-depth analysis of our data and examine how days of living cover, integration of animals, water availability, organic matter inputs and tillage intensity affect soil health in Colorado
- Each grower received their first Individualized Progress Report at the February 2020 annual meeting. This report shows where their soil(s) fall in comparison with their peers. An example of this report is listed as a “Product” as Example3IndividualizedProgressReport2019.pdf.
- In February, we brought Lance Gunderson, soil scientist formerly of Ward Labs, to Boulder to teach 2 classes here: one just for our participating growers, and one for everyone else who is interested in learning how to interpret results from Haney and PLFA soil health tests. 55 growers, family members and farm employees in the CSSHP attended the 1.5 hour long class at the Altona Grange on 2/13 . 46 growers and ag professionals attended the 3 hour workshop on 2/14 at the Boulder Open Space HUB offices. A course description is listed as a “Product”.
- We videotaped both classes so that CSSHP growers who weren’t able to attend can still view the material. We are currently editing the videos and expect to have them up on the web by mid-March.
- We participated in 2 newspaper interviews about the CSSHP and our findings. Both articles are included in “Products”.
- We gave short PowerPoint presentations about the CSSHP and our baseline findings to both the Boulder Valley (6 people) and the Longmont (5 people) Soil Conservation Districts, the St. Vrain and Lefthand Water District (13 people) , the District 6 Water-Users Association (25 people), Boulder’s Soil Revolution Conference (250 people), Boulder Community Foundation (75 people) and at Boulder City Council meetings (50-100 people) which are televised on a local municipal channel 8. A PDF of our PowerPoint is included in “Products”.
Here are the responses from CSSHP growers and workshop participants to the question, "What did you learn from Lance Gunderson's presentation on Understanding and Interpreting Soil Health Tests?"
To better understand soil tests and relationships between ratios
Better understanding of C:N ratios
Bacteria like alkaline soils, Need so much more.
Learned a bunch about PLFA's. So much information!
Good understanding of the soil testing process, PLFA, Haney tests etc.
Refresh and brought updates to what I learned previously
That I don't need to add anything for the next few years. Learned about the most important values to pay attention to and the recommended values
Cover crops effecting soil health; microbes
More clarity on test parameters
Just being with the folks doing the work is great.
Difference between Conventional and Haney soil tests
Great job coming up with analogies to make it easier to understand soil health
Lance's discussion various C:N ratios, Biomass
Ability to read soil tests
Understand how soil health is determined. Valuable to hear about soil tests. Too many things I learned to list.
I learned how to better interpret my tests and share with our interns
More depth on C:N ratios and their importance
PLFA measure fat in the soil
How to interpret my soil test results
About relationship of microbes and their functional groups to soil health; about test methods
Soil "built" from top down
PLFA and Haney methodology
Increased knowledge on diversity analysis; better understanding and thus increased skills in recommendations; Opinion changed/tempered on soil analysis because biological attributes and benefits being considered at higher level.
Science is not my background, there are people out there to utilize as a resource, regeneration is possible.
Didn't know this test before, so learning a lot about Haney soil test. Learned more about soil life and carbon sequestration.
I have a greater familiarity with the test and how to evaluate.
Understanding how soil microbes consume carbon to make nitrogen available to plants: Understanding the significance of the ratios used on the Haney test
Better understanding of components of soil health and how each variable interacts with others
How to interpret the test and how the tests are actually run in the lab and what they measure.
Better understanding of Haney test which is what I've used for the past couple years.
refined my understanding
How to read soil test scores. The handouts are amazing and very well done.
More understanding of soil components, what's there, what's needed
Consult with trained soil health tester/advisor; Continue learning how to balance response to complex data inputs
Understanding markers of soil health and how they impact N available to crop
Learned about another testing alternative PLFA; learned how to better interpret Haney soil test results
How biodiversity works in the cycling; New understanding of how to interpret and how things work together.
Several different relationships between organisms in soil and plants/ the above ground environment
So much! How things interact more with one another within the soil and the 2 test types
A new efficient soil test
How to interpret Haney and PLFA tests
How to understand 2 different soil testing systems
Details of Haney test and application, significance.
More complex test gives more nuanced solutions
More natural approaches for revitalization
How to read and use the Haney and PLFA tests
How to interpret C:N scores on test
Valuable skills to more effectively read soil tests with possible courses of action for improvement
Soil organic matter: there is a difference between measurements of biomass and activity. This means understanding Health and balance is even more complex.
Here are the responses from CSSHP growers and workshop participants to the question, "In the upcoming year, how are you going to share some aspect of the CSSHP with others?"
My employees will learn about some of it as well as other farmers I talk to about farming
Community talks with the general public
Yes, I teach vegetable growing; will do and influence Mikl
I'll work with some of those who couldn't come today
Just talk to folks who may be interested
Learn and quiz what others are working with then ask what they would like to change.
Continue to talk about soil health and how to improve it
Sharing with other farmers about positive results of CSSHP farmers and how that happened.
Do more soil tests
Through our fall pumpkin patch and school field trips
Informally talking to other growers as well as general public
Through the soil conservation district
Talking with other growers
Presentations for local community; have high school class helping me in May
I will share the overall findings and concept with people.
Gain Hands on experience and learn how to apply the concepts to improve our management
Farm tours, staff education, customers, special farm dinners, our children
Share presentation with local conservation district and land owners. Help County analyze Haney samples from Open space projects
Share with other staff at OSMP and coordinate discussion about soil results
Educating others through work at A1 organics
Will be providing opportunities for educational events
Soil tests all around. Need baselines to make decisions
Bring it into soil carbon sequestration classes, landscaping customers interested in SCS
I will be incorporating Haney PLFA into the carbon sequestration trials we are conducting.
I can better explain to others the importance of carbon in an organic agricultural system
Share the video, share the knowledge one-on-one, continue to promote soil health practices
As consultant with urban farming start-up in CO Springs, possibly as member of Fremont County Conservation District Board.
Staff trainings, education of students
Will incorporate into my field management
1 acre farm being planned, share insights, info, resources
Work with growers and producers and will help share the methods of interpretation.
Share links and continue to work with producers and share knowledge
Share info with my employees and CSU class cohort, also with my high school ag classes
Help with producers understanding soil tests.
Yes, Many useful insights I will share with others
With colleagues as consider ecological grassland restoration plans
Study group, master gardeners
With clients and fellow agronomists on biological recommendations
Use the knowledge in farm planning
I will use this information to explore modifying cropping practices to improve soil health
By sharing my skills with soil test analysis on their sites and encouraging their own deeper dives into this work
Here are the responses to the question, "PROFESSIONALS: Please describe how you are likely to use some aspect of Lance Gunderson's class for an educational purpose."
I teach several classes about soil biology in my community to various audiences including school groups K-12, master-gardener classes, landscapers and food producers. Thank you! Absolutely amazing!
Through C and programs are scientific; Reporting.
Sharing with OSMP resource coordinators to better understand and manage their systems (forest, wetlands, grasslands). Great class!
Use knowledge to better recommend compost products to customers and better understand lab analyticals.
Incorporate into soil health conference
We connect with numerous opportunities in all these areas and will use this educational event to enhance these.
Not sure yet.
I'm giving talk on carbon sequestration for homeowners and will use what I learned here.
We have 250 participants in trials and will make strategic use of Haney PLFA to get more thorough info for both individual participants and in presenting aggregated results.
Help interpret the test and make recommendations
I'm a small organic vegetable grower so I will definitely use information to inform my own practices, as well as share with peers, students at farm.
Scheduling presenter for public education
Students that wish, just the very simple version; Staff so they can teach others; Record keeping education.
Many of my growers insist fertilizer recommendations aren't high enough. Understanding other aspects of crop growth/soil may help improve production without using more N
Will probably direct producers to use Regen Lab, will also use tool as part of an educational training for peers or at least share for use of interpreting SH test results.
NRCS and CD CTA
Share with my company and update our soil recommendations
Helping other have the courage to get soil tests and will assist others in understanding their results.
More natural recommendations for soil amendments as an agronomist
Bravo! Incorporate into soil Health Planning book, guide and curriculum
Help people look at soil tests and interpret results
Cover crops, pilot projects, Water-moisture control.
Here are responses from other producers to the question, "If you are thinking about changing a practice based on things you learned today, what are you considering?"
This confirmed that I am on the right path
Not a producer but am hoping to see increase use of compost vs. chemical fertilization
Look for solutions to "concerning" items on Haney tests.
Increased cover cropping and diversity
Just starting out so will do first soil sample test in Sept/October
Possibly changing crop or diversifying part of it; will consult with Soil Conservation staff.
"Producer" role is 3-5 years in future
Will encourage participating producers to do the above.
Reduce tillage, increase cover crop
Take a look at my personal hay fields; get a soil test
Using this Haney test
Adding manure, maybe tea, reduce tillage
Planting a diverse spring cover crop mix
Less tillage, less synthetic, more cover
I would like more strategy on diversifications if this is effective.
21 out of 42 CSSHP growers made the following comments on their evaluations at our 2020 annual meeting to the question, “How are you going to incorporate your soil health test results into 2020 planning for your operation?”
- I have been working on soil health for several years and already had a plan that is not being changed but we are making thousands of yards of compost and cover cropping extensively
- Decrease high phosphorus inputs
- Know how to limit manure application
- Look at the soil tests to make decisions
- Not really. Just keep doing good practices and evaluate after a few years.
- Determine baselines
- I will be modifying my input decisions
- Paying more attention to the values and trying to improve the soil with holistic ideas
- More cover cropping and less tilling
- To design cover crop mixes
- More thinking about manures
- I’ll check with Lance
- First we’re going to try to study and better understand
- Leasing now property and building the soil with compost and aged manure.
- First step will be getting cover crops going.
- Increasing cover crop and less manure.
- Grow cover crops, increase compost
- follow recommendations
- Increased cover cropping; increased diversity of cover crop mixes