Final report for FW19-341
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 uses the collective knowledge of the diverse participating growers to apply local solutions to our soil health implementation conundrum. The project provides soil health tests and annual soil health scores for each participating grower, using the Haney/Phospho-Lipid Fatty Acid (PLFA) soil tests from Regen Ag 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 try to improve their soil health scores through management actions which align with their operation. Annual questionnaires, meetings and classes encourage team-building, collaboration and information sharing among participating growers. Growers make key project decisions such as their own soil management choices, timing and location of their own soil testing, and the project’s class content. Growers are 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 12/2021, 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.
Recruit 15 growers at conferences, meetings.
Develop questionnaires, sampling methods, handouts, classes.
Organize videotaping, web-hosting.
Pre-soil-testing questionnaires distributed, compiled.
First annual team-building meeting.
Teach soil sampling class, distribute handouts, videotape class.
Assemble, distribute soil sampling kits, soil probes, explanatory material.
Soil samples collected, shipped.
Test results compiled, distributed with SOM#, Soil Health#, Days Living Cover#, explanatory material.
1/2020 and recurring
Annual questionnaire distributed, compiled.
Annual meeting. 30 growers in project.
Ward Labs class: Interpreting Results. Growers choose following classes.
4-9/2020 and recurring
Soil samples collected, shipped
Test results: compiled, distributed with individualized progress reports
3-year Western SARE report.
All growers identify 5 factors and 2 practices; 15 growers implement additional practices; 10 growers purchase additional tests; 5 growers present information.
Growers’ network established.
2+ outreach events conducted by 4 growers.
Forms available online.
Project ends: 10-year final report.
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OUR GRANT’S QUESTION WAS: Does providing annual soil health testing, education and team-building lead to broader adoption of practices which improve soil health?
3 YEARS LATER, OUR ANSWER IS: “Yes, for some growers, BUT………”
OUR SUCCESSES: The “Yes, for some growers,” part
For the last 3 years, the Citizen Science Soil Health Project has provided free annual soil health testing to 48 Boulder, Larimer and Weld County growers, using the Haney and PLFA tests. We have emphasized education, information sharing, team-building, and fellowship in all our activities with CSSHP growers. (See Table1 CSSHPActivities2019_2021)
We have surpassed our objectives for enrolling new growers, purchasing extra soil health tests, encouraging implementation of new soil health practices, and promoting individual CSSHP growers as subject-matter experts. (See Table2 CSSHPGoalsObjectives2019_2021) 48 growers are now enrolled in the project. All growers demonstrated a fair understanding of soil health principles upon enrollment, and all were already using at least a couple soil health management practices. By the fall of 2021, 31 growers reported management changes since the beginning of the project, to increase their soil’s health. (See Reported Management Changes since the beginning of the CSSHP for list of changes.) A total of 12 CSSHP growers will have presented information on their areas of expertise at our annual meetings and Farm Field Day by 2/22/22.
After three years of soil testing, the CSSHP and our 48 participating growers have been able to demonstrate, with our aggregated soil testing results, that lower pH, increased water availability, improved soil texture, increased organic matter inputs, decreased tillage intensity, and more days of living cover result in better soil health. As a group, we are able to show the same trends that many previous and more rigorous soil health research projects have shown. Since our 48 growers are all participating in the locally-based research, they pay more attention to our group findings than they would to a research paper in a scientific journal. (Please see INSIGHTS FROM OUR 2019 and 2020 DATA)
Over the 3 years of the project, we have compiled soil testing results on 378 unique soil samples. On 175 of those samples we ran Haney plus PLFA tests. On 203 samples we ran just Haney tests. We collected 94 test results in 2019, 148 test results in 2020 and 137 test results in 2021. We have gathered testing data on a total of 205 unique sites. Because growers have entered the project on different years, and because growers can decide how often they want to test the sites they are paying for themselves, different sites have different amounts of data. We have 3 years’-worth of data on 58 sites, 2 years’-worth of data on 48 sites and 1 year of data on 99 sites. 9 growers entered the project after 2019, so we only have 1-2 years’ worth of data for them.
For the first 2 years of the project, we used our data to show overall trends for the entire group (See INSIGHTS FROM OUR 2019 and 2020 DATA). We also used our data to show our growers how they compared with others in their peer group on 10 soil health indicators and 3 soil health practices. (See Example3IndividualizedProgressReport2019). Only by the winter of 2022 do we have enough consecutive years of data (3 years) to analyze most of our growers’ progress on improving their soil’s health.
Almost half our growers had not tested their soil recently or at all, prior to involvement in the CSSHP. (See Table3 PreviousSoilTesting) A sizeable minority was unaware of fertility and nutrient balancing issues prior to their participation, so our testing has been valuable for these growers from a fertility and profitability standpoint.
Our soil testing program has also helped some growers with management decisions. We provide all our growers with two major reports annually. The first report is a soil testing results report (See CSSHP User Friendly Haney PLFA Results) which we send out as soon as we receive their test results from the lab. The second report is their year-end Individualized Progress Report (See Example3IndividualizedProgressReport2019) which we send out in February of the following year, after we compile and analyze our grower’s year-end reports.
According to our recent poll, about half (23) of CSSHP growers fully understand their soil testing results and use this information to drive management decisions (See Table4 HowUseSoilHealthTests). The remaining CSSHP growers prefer a different test, have found an outside advisor to assist them in management decisions, or are challenged to understand their test results.
Growers have demonstrated a greater understanding of their confidential individualized year-end reports (See Table5 HowUseYearEndReports). Our year-end reports show growers how they compare with their peers on 10 important Haney and PLFA soil health indicators (soil organic matter, soil
respiration, organic nitrogen, organic carbon, carbon-nitrogen ratio, pH, available N, available P, available K, total microbial biomass and Fungi : Bacteria ratio), as well as three management practices (days of living cover, organic matter inputs and tillage intensity). Growers are divided into two peer groups for comparison: the Tilled Fields Group and the Zero Tillage Group. The reports contain more graphics and fewer categories to decipher than the individual soil test results. It is designed so that a grower can easily see if they fall into the top, middle or bottom of the pack. (See Example3IndividualizedProgressReport2019) This may explain why more growers understand their year-end report better than their test results
Finally, perhaps partly as a result of our project, and also due to increasing public recognition of the importance of soils, our region has seen several new soil health initiatives at the local and state levels in the last 3 years:
- The City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks Department has created a permanent position for a Soil Health Coordinator to oversee the soils of their 15,000 acres of City-owned agricultural lands. Over the past 2 years, the coordinator tested baseline soil samples from 100+ sites with the Haney test. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/34db814236e34e2b81d91805e0d1160b
- Boulder County Parks and Open Space has revised their Cropland Policy to develop a soil health program with 67 tenants on their 25,000 acres of County-owned agricultural lands, using practices such as cover cropping, compost addition and reduced tillage. https://www.bouldercounty.org/open-space/management/cropland-policy/
- The Colorado State Conservation Board has initiated a soil health STAR program in partnership with 17 local conservation districts, including our local conservation districts. https://ag.colorado.gov/soil-health
- The University of Colorado Center for Sustainable Landscapes and Communities featured soil health and some of our findings in their 2021 Ecosystem Trends Report for Boulder County. https://cslc.colorado.edu/2020-trends/category/Soil%20Health
- For the last 3 years, Boulder County has funded a Sustainable Food and Agriculture Grant Program for regenerative agriculture and soil health practices. $405,000 was allocated to the program for 2022 grants. https://www.bouldercounty.org/environment/sustainability/ag-grant-program/
Our project has benefited financially from this increased focus on soil health in our region. We have received financial support from Boulder County Parks and Open Space Foundation, Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union, the Boulder Valley and Longmont Conservation Districts, District 6 Water Users Association, St. Vrain and Lefthand Water Conservancy District, Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, Boulder Open Space Conservancy, the Maverick Foundation, Boulder County Office of Sustainability, the Colorado Carbon Fund, the Denver Foundation and 6 private individuals. We have received grants from St. Vrain and Lefthand Water Conservancy District and are applying for a grant from Boulder County Sustainable Food and Agriculture Fund.
OUR FAILURES: The “BUT……” part
Failure #1: We have not been very successful at strengthening connections between different factions of our agricultural community, nor have growers participated in community outreach events. Covid has really impacted this part of our project, since large indoor winter-time meetings are not wise, and many of our growers have struggled to reconfigure their operations during the pandemic. Our 2021 annual meeting was held over Zoom and our 2022 meeting may be as well. In-person meetings increase fellowship much better than Zoom meetings. Despite small gains in fellowship, schisms between organic and conventional growers remain. (See Table6 CSSHPGoalsObjectives2019_2021)
Failure #2: Our 2019 goal was for CSSHP growers’ soil organic matter, soil health scores and days of living cover to all trend upward by 2021. (See Table6 CSSHPGoalsObjectives2019_2021) We now see that this goal was unrealistic, but our results are still disappointing. All 3 indicators saw improvement on only half or fewer of the sites for which we have 3 years-worth of data. (See Table7ProgressChanging3SHIndicators) These results are what one would expect from random variation, and not from focused efforts to improve soil health.
Our lack of progress to increase days of living cover by the addition of cover crops is especially disappointing. Days of living cover is a soil health indicator which a grower can change in one season. Of the very large number of sites showing no change in days of living cover (29 sites, 53%), 27 are pasture, already having 365 days of living cover. However, there was a net decrease in days of living cover for our remaining tilled sites.
Our net decrease in days of living cover correlates with the very slow adoption of cover cropping by CSSHP growers. Several of our small organic vegetable growers were cover-cropping fields before they enrolled in the project. They have continued to do so, albeit erratically and not on every field. Some of them stopped cover-cropping in 2021 due to covid labor shortages, which might explain part of our net decrease in days of living cover over the last 3 years. 4 growers (out of 48, or 8%) have persistently and successfully increased their use of cover crops, despite germination failures, goose predation and fall water challenges. Several other growers talk about cover cropping but don’t get around to it, or try it (inter-seeding especially), don’t see results, and question its worth. Ag change comes very slowly.
Failure #3: Another disappointment is that we have not been able to show improvement of individual growers’ key soil health indicators over the last 3 years. Our composite data clearly shows the effects of pH, water availability, soil texture, timing of tests, organic matter inputs, tillage intensity, and days of living cover on soil health. However, year-to-year comparison of individual grower’s data shows erratic variation, with no clear trends.
CSSHP growers are disappointed with their erratic soil health test results. Before they invest money in new management, many of them want to ascertain that soil health and profitability improvements are certain. Due to Colorado’s inconsistent seasonal variations, grower’s crop rotations and the inherent erratic-ism in the citizen science model, we need several more years of test results and analysis to show our growers clear trends over the “background noise”.
We are working with research advisor Brian Anacker and laboratory director Lance Gunderson of Regen Ag Lab to understand the causes of individual growers’ variability. It could be from changing to a different lab in 2020, from variable environmental conditions, variable sampling dates and techniques, or something else entirely.
In our variability analysis, we have noticed one pattern which we have named “The Stability of Shittiness” and its corollary, “The Bounciness of the Best”. Soil health indicators (Organic C, Organic N, Soil Organic Matter, and Soil Respiration) of our lowest scoring sites remain fairly stable year to year, and do not change very much. However our highest scoring sites experience very large swings in their soil health indicators, far larger than one would expect from the normal coefficients of variation from a laboratory. (See Table 8 CompairingVariance)
One possible explanation for this pattern of variability for our soil respiration results lies in the variable hardiness of different microbial groups. It could be that in soils which have poor overall soil health and which have endured many extreme tillage assaults, only the toughest microbes survive. These tough microbes may persist stubbornly, no matter what, forming a stable base population. Perhaps as a soil improves, less hardy microbial groups prosper in the soil ecosystem. Perhaps these less hardy microbial groups are more susceptible to environmental, nutrient and management changes, resulting in large annual swings in their populations. We will investigate this hypothesis further in coming years, exploring the literature and analyzing our PLFA results to see if they can shed any light on this hypothesis.
Our variable hardiness hypothesis could explain the variability in our soil respiration results, and to some extent in our Organic C and Organic N results. However, it does not explain the variability in our soil organic matter results. According to the literature, soil organic matter is very stable and very hard to change in the short term. However we are seeing an 8-73% variation in our soil organic matter scores, with an average 32% variability and median 29% variability for each site for which we have 3 year’s-worth of results. This observed variability in soil organic matter is very confusing.
Failure #4: Only half of our participating growers understand their test results and which actions are indicated. (See Table4 HowUseSoilHealthTests) The other half has a hard time understanding their results and knowing which actions to take, have found someone else to interpret the test and advise them on which actions to take, or are ignoring the test results. That gives our project a 50% passing grade, which is not acceptable in any grading system I am familiar with.
LESSONS LEARNED: New directions for the CSSHP
Lesson #1: Three years is too short. The CSSHP is a 10-year-long project, and our failures show that it’s a good thing that we have given ourselves 10 years to accomplish our goals. In the 21st century, we expect organizations and sectors to be nimble, able to change as quickly as the world around us. We expect them to rapidly adapt to new technologies, to turn on a dime like a drone. But agriculture is NOT like a nimble drone, flitting to and fro. Rather, it is like a huge super tanker, taking an exceedingly long time to turn. In agriculture, there is usually only one shot per year to try something new, and many reasons why that one shot might or might not work in that year, which then requires more years of testing, tweaking, and retesting. That is why the CSSHP is a 10 year long project. It is also why it will take us more than three years to figure out whether providing annual soil health testing, education and team-building leads to broader adoption of practices that improve soil health
Lesson #2: Simply providing soil tests is not enough. Providing CSSHP growers with free soil health tests has not been enough to incentivize management changes or to clarify the state of a field’s soil health for all growers. Free soil health tests HAVE helped about 50% of our growers understand the health of their soil. Free soil health tests have also led to some management changes for some CSSHP growers. But more is needed.
This fall, we asked CSSHP growers how we can improve the CSSHP and make it more useful for them going forward. Their overwhelming choice was to provide more individual consults with soil health experts, similar to the individual consults which Lance Gunderson provided 19 CSSHP growers in 2020. Second and third choices are “more presentations from fellow CSSHP growers” and “help with funding for soil health improvements”. (See Table9 HowToImproveCSSHP)
Lesson #3: We need more local experts to advise growers. Our growers universally loved their individual consults with Lance Gunderson of Regen Ag Lab, in the winter of 2020. With their first year of soil testing results in hand, they could ask Lance what their results meant and how to improve their soils. Lance’s 10 years of experience analyzing over 50,000 soil health samples gave him a breadth and depth of experience which our growers immediately recognized. But Lance lives in Nebraska and has a very busy schedule. Our growers need a local expert to ask for help, but our local agronomists are only just now becoming familiar with soil health tests. They have little-to-no expertise interpreting soil health tests for others. We have involved local agronomists in our project to increase their familiarity with soil health testing, but they need an intensive crash course on interpreting soil health test results and advising growers. Addressing this need is outside the scope of the CSSHP. The State or USDA would be well-served to train all local soil conservation district managers to interpret soil health tests for growers.
Lesson #4: Six page reports are too long. We send our growers 2 different reports each year: 1) their soil test results with color coding, normal ranges and explanations of each value and 2) their year-end individualized progress report, which shows them how they compare with their peers on 10 soil health indicators and 3 soil health practices. Each report is 6+ pages long, and is simply too much information for many of our growers to absorb. A large portion of our growers would benefit from a “Recommended Action” cover page for our year-end reporting. The Recommended Actions must be simple, concrete, clear, individualized actions which are based on the grower’s soil testing results and field conditions.
Lesson #5: It was unwise to put all our eggs into one basket (one soil health test). To date, we have relied mainly on the Haney test in our analysis of soil health conditions and progress at participating sites. It would have been wiser to include a secondary back-up soil assessment tool, even a more subjective one. A qualitative ranking tool, where a grower circles words which best describe their soil would not only provide useful correlation, but could also bring growers into closer physical interaction with their soil.
Lesson #6: It takes a long time and lots of hard work to rebuild trust. It doesn’t take long to lose a person’s trust, but it can take years to win it back. Potluck meals, dorky introduction games, group activities and custom-branded hats have not been enough to tear down some walls between factions of our growers. We will continue to work on rebuilding fellowship, with more of the same, plus humorous Soiley awards, small group exercises, a virtual soil health web forum, a CSSHP website, and video profiles of 6 CSSHP growers. If covid would give us a break, this work could proceed more easily.
Thank you very much for funding the first 3 years of the Citizen Science Soil Health Project. Your financial support has been essential to our successes to date. Over the next 7 years of the CSSHP, we plan to incorporate the 6 Lessons Learned from our first 3 years, and change and expand our efforts. To address our areas of failure, the CSSHP will add management recommendations, referrals to local soil health experts and cost-sharing referrals to our test-reporting program. We will plumb our data to identify sources of variability and add grower’s qualitative observations to supplement soil-test data. We will expand our team-building efforts to include a website, small-group problem solving exercises, and promotion of participating growers as subject matter experts. We will continue to monitor our growers’ practices, attitudes and understanding to ascertain whether these actions lead to an increased adoption of soil health practices, more fellowship, more information sharing, and the emergence of local soil health leaders among our participating growers.
The Citizen Science Soil Health Project is a 10-year research project which pays for one annual Haney and one biennial Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) soil health tests for each participating grower. The Haney test gives each grower an annual soil health score, which growers try to improve over the 10-year study period. Growers are compared ONLY to themselves over time, and their individual test results remain confidential. Growers’ initial soil health scores vary widely, since each grower’s management and native soils are very different. The project tracks only the relative change in each grower’s soil health score and does not compare growers with each other. However, we 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 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 baseline questionnaire assesses growers’ knowledge of soil health, current soil management, and current soil testing practices. We 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 helps growers choose the location and timing of their soil sample collection, and emphasizes that they are the investigating citizen scientists.
Subsequent year-end questionnaires 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 compile the data from each grower annually into individualized progress reports, with easy-to-read graphics and spreadsheets. The individualized progress report allows 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 offer the following inducements: free annual Haney/PLFA soil health tests (Regen Ag Lab) for 10 years; additional Haney/PLFA soil health tests at 10% discount; a new soil probe; and a $50 stipend for each soil sample collected for the first 3 years of the project. We solicit new participating growers for the project through year 4. We include educational material in all questionnaires, newsletters and meetings with participating growers. We also produce a short annual class as part of each annual meeting. We 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 Water Conservancy Districts have all granted funds to the project. Donations from local businesses and research grants will be solicited for additional funding for years 4-10 of the project. Success is 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 include educational material about soil health practices in all grower questionnaires, newsletters, meetings and individualized progress reports. We track, compile and distribute data on soil organic matter, soil health scores and days of living cover. We ask growers making the largest gains to give short presentations at annual meetings. Success is 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 do not tolerate any bad-mouthing of other participants. We 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 emphasize that no one grower has all the answers, but collectively the group already has almost all the answers. Success is 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.
Please see FINAL REPORT in Research section above.
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.
Education and Outreach
Community Foundation forum on Soil Health, Audience approximately 150
Soil Revolution Conference, 2019, 2020 and 2021: Progress Report on CSSHP findings; Audience approximately 250 each year.
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 48participating growers. Education is integrated into all parts of our project:
- Annual questionnaires both gather information and educate participating growers. For example, when we ask about water management, we explain how soil health usually improves faster on irrigated pasture than dry-land range.
- Annual meetings include classes on various soil health topics. The January 2019 class covered how to take soil samples. The January 2020 class covered interpreting test results by staff from Regen Ag Lab. We videotaped classes and put them online. Subsequent years’ classes were growers’ choice, and covered: Cover-cropping(2021) and Maximizing Water Yield (2022). Our current participating growers and advisors include experts on these topics.
- Growers’ soil testing results include educational material on what reported test results mean, normal ranges, and group ranges.
- Growers’ annual individualized progress reports 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. We still report ranges and trends in our data (without identifying information). To address our growers’ trust/confidentiality issues and to develop local leadership around soil health, we include both organic and GM participating growers in each outreach event we conduct.
Our outreach to other growers and the general public included:
- Making our video-taped class available to anyone on-line;
- Presentations at conferences such as Boulder’s Soil Revolution Conference, local Soil Conservation Service and Water District meetings throughout the year, and financial donor organizations' annual meetings.
Additionally, after approval from our participating growers, in year-3 we have uploaded all the tools we created 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 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 or February 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 1/31/22
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. They are now on the web at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buWErVOQSTw and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueD_4yvnWq0
- 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".
March 2021 Update
- We have secured sufficient funding from grants and private donations to cover the first 4 1/2 years of the project.
- We added 5 more growers and now have 45 growers participating in the project.
- In February 2020, we brought Lance Gunderson, soil scientist from Regen Ag Labs, to Boulder, to teach 2 classes here in Boulder: 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. We videotaped these classes and they are now available on the web at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= buWErVOQSTw and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueD_4yvnWq0. These videos are included in the Colorado Collaborative for Healthy Soil's Soil Health Resource Guide for Colorado Growers.
- Our 2019 findings on the effects of tillage practices on soil health and the high soil phosphorus levels for some Boulder County organic growers were featured in CU Boulder's Center for Sustainable Landscapes' 2020 Ecosystem Trends report. https://cslc.colorado.edu/2020-trends?category=Soil%20Health I participated in the Center's webinar on Boulder's Soil Health, attended by approximately 250 local residents. I also wrote an article for Colorado Gardener on the excessive phosphorus trend we are seeing among our home gardeners. It will be published shortly and I will upload the article as soon as it is available.
- Due to COVID, our third annual meeting in February 2021 was on Zoom. Approximately 35 growers attended and shared their cover cropping experiences. Dale Strickler of Green Cover Seed discussed "Cover Cropping for Colorado's Front Range", and a panel of 4 CSSHP growers discussed their own experiences with cover cropping.
- Because Zoom does not promote group cohesion, we will also host a Farm Field Day in October 2021 for CSSHP growers, hosted by Growing Gardens, to practice digging soil pits and to share food and information. Our growers are most interested in hearing from other CSSHP growers about their successful soil health methods. We expect to be able to safely hold this Farm Field day even if COVID restrictions are still in place, since it will be outdoors and 6 feet apart.
- Due to price increases, we decided to run PLFA tests only every other year on soil samples. Our growers concurred with this decision. We switched testing labs from Ward Labs to Lance Gunderson's new Regen Ag Lab, since many of our growers have an existing relationship with Lance. We will run PLFA's again in 2021, or more often if a grower specifically requests one.
- 44 of our growers successfully collected 1 or more soil samples in 2020. We sent 101 samples in to Regen Ag Labs for Haney (and some PLFA) testing, compiled all data from their test results, and sent user-friendly results and Individualize Progress Reports to all our growers.
- Our growers’101 samples, plus 39 samples from City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, plus 8 samples from Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks gives us a database of 148 soil samples for 2020. Adding this to our 96 2019 samples gives us a total data base of 244 soil sample reports from 166 unique sites in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties.
- We analyzed our data to find overall trends. Our 2020 findings are in the "Products" section.
- We will continue to solicit additional donations to fund an upgraded printer/computer, 5 additional growers, and personnel. We are focusing recruitment of additional growers on large-scale conventional operations because those growers manage the largest tracts of land.
- We will move our data from Excel spreadsheets into a database to preserve its integrity and increase efficiencies.
- Our long range goal is to promote several organic and conventional growers as soil health leaders, recognized as such by their peers.
- 27 growers responded to our 2020 evaluation survey of the project. The full survey results are included in "Products". Highlights include: 70% of growers found our zoom presentation on cover crops useful; a majority of growers will adopt one or more soil health practices, increase their operation's diversification, change their use of off-farm purchased inputs, and increase their networking with other producers; 90% of growers are interested in a Farm Field Day where they hear from other CSSHP growers about new soil health methods they have tried; the topic of greatest interest for our next annual meeting is "Maximizing Water Yield; Getting the most out of every drop".
January 2022 Update
- We added 3 new growers to the project, which brings us to 48 CSSHP growers. Our new growers are Angie Busby of CalWood Education Center in Jamestown, Tim Villard from Growing Gardens urban farm at the YMCA in Longmont, and Jerry DeBruyne, a long-time cattle rancher in Longmont. We now have equal numbers of organic (24) and conventional (24) growers enrolled in the project.
- Our 48 participating growers have all finished testing their soil for 2021, and have collectively sampled 137 sites this year. They are now filling out their year-end questionnaires on Google-Sheets, which has made data entry and analysis much easier for everyone.
- We have successfully moved all our data from Excel into an Access database. This makes our data much more stable and accessible, and will serve us well in years to come.
- Our 2020 year-end findings (more water, better soil texture, lower pH, and sampling soil in fall rather than spring all equal higher soil health scores) set the stage for 2021’s “Unfair Soiley Awards”. The growers with the highest soil health scores generally had “unfair” advantages, such as more days of water availability, better native soil texture, lower soil pH and sampled their soil in the fall. The winners of this year’s “Unfair Soiley Awards” were Sarah Kell of Growing Gardens, Karel Starek of the Golden Hoof, John Schlagel of Niwot Farms, and Mimi Yanus of Mimi’s Garden, each receiving a $100 gift certificate from Green Cover Seed.
- We hope that our 2022 annual winter meeting will be in-person this year, despite omicron. Our growers chose “Maximizing Water Yield” as this year’s topic, prescient, given our current dry conditions! Local panelists will address useful strategies to get the most out of every drop (lining irrigation ditches, soil sense monitoring, what the EQIP process is like, funding resources for water improvements, and increasing water retention/infiltration.).
- Our October-fest Fall Field Day at Growing Gardens was a great success. 3 CSSHP growers shared their expertise with fellow CSSHP growers - Jules Van Thuyne on growing pinto beans, Karel Starek on rotational grazing, and Wyatt Barnes on intensive cover cropping. We then dug soil pits and practiced scoring soil with Clark Harshbarger’s soil health score card, before adjourning to feast on brats and fixings.
- We have applied for 3 more grants this year: a new Western SARE Farmer-Rancher grant, a grant from the St. Vrain and Lefthand Water Conservancy District, and a Boulder County Sustainable Agriculture and Food Fund grant.
- Our goals for 2022 include building a website which will include our findings, soil health report templates so anyone in the world can copy our project, and 6 video profiles of CSSHP growers’ soil health practices. Our growers have told us that about half of them don’t understand their soil reports and can’t figure out what to do about them on their own. Accordingly, we will add individualized action recommendations to our reports to growers, and more referrals to local soil health experts.
Education and Outreach Outcomes
Please See the "Our Failures" and "Lesson's Learned" sections of our Final Report, under Research.
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.
- Advertising Blurb for Workshop "Understanding and Interpreting Soil Health Tests" by Lance Gunderson (Bulletin)
- User-Friendly Haney and PLFA Results Form (Mobile/Desktop Application)
- Individualized Progress Report for Growers in Citizen Science Soil Health Project (Fact Sheet)
- Longmont Times Call Article about CSSHP (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
- Study snapshot: Boulder County ranches, open space have healthiest soil (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
- Powerpoint presentation about CSSHP and Baseline Findings (Conference/Presentation Material)
- Soil Sampling Form plus Instructions (Manual/Guide)
- Baseline Questionnaire for New CSSHP members (Course or Curriculum)
- Insights from our 2020 Data (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
- 2020 YEAR-END EVALUATION OF CSSHP BY PARTICIPATING GROWERS (Article/Newsletter/Blog)