Government agencies, environmental organizations, and natural resource users are addressing the increasingly obvious impacts of global climate change by setting targets for carbon dioxide mitigation and seeking effective methods for carbon sequestration. Numerous researchers (Six et al., 2000; Lal, 2004) have shown that soil conservation practices can enhance soil carbon sequestration (SCS). The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified existing conservation practices with the potential for enhancing SCS. While the Economic Research Service (ERS) determined that agriculture can provide low-cost opportunities for sequestering carbon, it also noted that carbon payments will only be cost-effective if carbon is sequestered over the long term (Lewandrawski et al., 2004).
This proposal seeks to identify and promote soil health indicators that assess, and associated conservation practices that enhance, long-term SCS on small, family-owned farms and ranches in the southern Great Plains. A collaborative team of soil health experts and from land grant (Texas A&M AgriLife) and non-land grant (Tarleton State University – TSU) universities, NRCS, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and the National Center for Alternative Technology (NCAT) will work together with farmers and ranchers to simultaneously identify and test farm-based and highly replicable technical assessments of SCS. The farm-based SCS indicators will provide critical tools to promote on-farm and on-ranch (hereafter referred to collectively as farms) adoption of conservation practices that enhance SCS. The technical SCS assessments will provide prerequisite monitoring tools for the adoption of policies that could provide producers with economic incentives for carbon sequestering farming practices, such as carbon trading or NRCS cost-share payments.
Designed as a participatory and multidisciplinary project, this project will involve ranchers, farmers, NRCS and NCAT specialists, and a TSU sociologist, to identify farm-relevant soil health indicators while Texas A&M AgriLife, ARS, and TSU soil and plant scientists will analyze the correlation between these soil health indicators and long-term SCS. Farmer and ranchers (hereafter referred to collectively as farmers) involvement will be critical in the conceptualization and coordination of project outreach, policy development, and research activities. Multiple communication systems, including one-on-one interactions, in-person coordination meetings, and electronic media, will be used throughout the project to ensure that all participants are informed of project activities and have the ability to provide their input into project development and implementation.
We will use a chronosequence to analyze the impact of land management practices on SCS. By involving farmers engaged in conventional no-cover row cropping, no-till row cropping, and no-till row cropping with cover crops, we will be able to assess soil characteristics associated with different land uses. Also, by including farmers involved in a broad range of production practices, this project will facilitate dialogues that may help identify outreach methods that are most effective in encouraging implementation of SCS-enhancing practices.
This project builds on existing activities of partner agencies and organizations while creating new venues for dialogues and research interactions among these partners. Project interactions will only allow for the identification of indicators of SCS, while facilitate the on-going study and promotion of soil health across Texas.
The following objectives will be addressed and fulfilled throughout the project in a process that is integrated, iterative, critically reflective, and allows for flexibility as participants use information to transition toward improvement.
- Build interdisciplinary and intersectoral partnerships among farmers, land managers, researchers, technical support specialists, and agricultural input providers with the objective of identifying indicators of SCS and promoting the use of agricultural management practices to enhance soil health and SCS.
- Engage all participants in project development and implementation through the formation of on-line and face-to-face communication networks.
- Through collaborative interactions between researchers and land managers, identify and describe in detail, current and historical farming practices of land to be used in soil research studies and the current and historical conservation practice decision making processes of the manager and / or prior managers of the land.
- Assess relationships between land management practices and technical assessments of SCS, including rate of water infiltration, a variety of SOC assessments method of bulk soils, SOC in microaggegates, microbial respiration, phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) assessments of bacterial:fungal community ratios, and mycorrhizal fungi abundance in the soil based on genomic analyses.
- Assess and identify differences in priority SCS assessments among the various cropping and grazing systems analyzed.
- Through collaborative interactions between researchers and farmers, conduct soil health assessments on fields that were sampled for technical analyses of SCS.
- Assess relationships between priority technical SCS analyses and land manager-relevant soil heath indicators.
- Assess relationships between priority technical SCS analyses and conservation practices that enhance SCS as defined by NRCS conservation practice standards.
- Assess relationships between priority technical SCS assessments and agricultural and SCS criteria identified by carbon credit aggregators.
- Use, during integrated meetings of researchers, technical support personnel, and land managers, information obtained through Objectives 1 and 2 to identify critical conservation practices, indicators of soil quality, indicators of SCS, and benefits of these practices. Based on these discussions:
- And initial research results, revise research assessments to focus on priority indicators of SCS and soil quality.
- Create and present outreach information on conservation-based land management practices and benefits.
- Develop strategies for engaging in policy and potential farm payment discussions with personnel with the Texas State Office of NRCS and with carbon credit aggregators.
- Engage all project participants, including farmers and ranchers, in the development of peer-to-peer interactions and outreach meetings designed to encourage additional farmers to implement enhanced soil conservation practices.
- Develop and implement farmer group meetings and peer-to-peer interactions through interactions involving project researchers, technical support personnel, and farmers.
- Develop and maintain project websites to enhance outreach to and communication among project participants, including farmers and technical support personnel.
- Develop and implement outreach to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension personnel and other farm technical support personnel to enhance discussions regarding soil conservation practices and the potential for enhancing farmer access to support payments for SCS.
- Develop and implement on-farm and in-person, as well as web-based trainings and interactions to provide information about research objectives and results and to use this information to further promote the implementation of soil conservation practices.
- Enhance implementation of soil conservation practices by encouraging NRCS and policy personnel to integrate project research results into NRCS conservation standards or other farm-based economic incentives to promote SCS and the implementation of soil conservation practices.
- Use project research results to identify the purpose, criteria, considerations, plans and specifications, and operations and maintenance of SCS practices to be integrated into NRCS conservation practice standards.
- Use project research results to identify combinations of existing NRCS conservation practices that may be combined to effectively enhance SCS.
- Use information from farmer/rancher/dairymen interactions to help set practice payment rates and processes for prioritizing SCS-enhancing practices in the development of NRCS contracts.
- Work with carbon credit aggregators to develop accreditation methods and carbon payment processes for farmers implementing SCS-enhancing practices.
- Encourage implementation of SCS-enhancing practices in other locations through participation of project participants in professional meetings and conferences.
- Ensure effective project implementation, data collection and analysis, and outreach interactions through evaluation processes involving on-going participatory project documentation, critical interactions among internal participants, and feedback from participants involved in meetings or other program interactions.
- Coordinate, at the minimum, quarterly meetings among all project participants to discuss and evaluate project implementation, integration of project implementation, and effectiveness of internal and external communication processes.
- Monitor adherence of project research, interaction, and outreach processes to stated project timelines.
- Coordinate regular meetings among researchers to compare, evaluate, and integrate research data.
- Develop evaluation tools to assess effectiveness of outreach processes to farmers, technical support professionals, extension personnel, and researchers.
- Implement on-going processes for modifying project implementation processes to address issues and concerns identified through evaluation processes.
Soil Carbon Sequestration Research
Initial assessments of soil carbon sequestration (SCS) and soil health were conducted using treatments to simulate degree of conservation management and soil types to represent differences across locations. Soil analyses for SCS were selected to serve as a comparison with on-going USDA soil health assessments while also being consistent with monitoring criteria identified as critical by researchers associated with the Soil Health Institute and as are being used by various ecosystem service marketing programs.
Soil has been collected at farms during three sampling periods. Soil was collected at seven farms between October 3 – 10, 2017. These farms represented three soil types and locations in north central Texas: Blackland soils (Vertisols, representative soil-Houston Black) located between Hillsboro and Temple, redbed clay derived soils (Tillman-Vernon-Hollister soil association) located near Vernon, and sandy loam soils (representative soil – Windthorst sandy loam) located near Stephenville. Soil management treatments were conventional till, no-till short term (3-5 years), no-till long term (10 years +), and no-till and cover crops. During the second sampling period, in April and May, 2018, samples were collected from farms on the Blackland and Tillman-Vernon-Hollister soils only since farms on the Windthorst soils were determined to have management practices inconsistent with other farms in the study. A third set of soil samples were collected in August – September 2018. In addition to collecting samples at the farms on The Blackland and Tillman-Vernon-Hollisters soils, soil was collected at farms near Lubbock (Pullman clay loam), Karnes and Bee Counties (Coy-Monteola-Pernitas soil association), and in the Rio Grande Valley (Hidalgo-Raymondville soil association). Additional sampling sites were included to better compare soil health characteristics across soil associations. Based on soil analyses, a final set of soil samples will be collected during the 2019 summer growing season.
During the first sampling session, we took 4 replicate penetrometer assessments to 30 cm and 4 replicate soil samples at 2 depths, 0 -15 and 15 – 30 cm at each farm. Each replicate sample consisted of 6 subsamples that were combined and divided into 4 sample bags for later analyses. Air dried and sieved soils were analyzed by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory for pH, conductivity, nitrate-nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, sodium, and organic carbon. The laboratory of Dr. Richard Haney at USDA-ARS Grassland Soil and Water Research Laboratory analyzed air-dried surface soils according to the Haney Soil Quality Test (Haney et al., 2001). Frozen samples were sent to Ward Laboratories, Inc for PLFA analyses (Tiemann et al., 2015). Permanganate-oxidizable active organic matter (Weil et al., 2003) and aggregate stability (Acosta-Martinez and Zobeck, 2004) were conducted at the soils research laboratory at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station in Stephenville. The second and third set of soil samples are being analyzed similarly except that penetrometer and PLFA analyses were not conducted. We are also planning on conducting assessments of β glucosidase (Dick, 2011) and total and easily-extractable glomalin (Wright and Upadhyaya, 1996). Genomic assessments of selected surface soils using PCR (Fierer, 2012) will be conducted by the laboratory of Dr. Jeff Brady withTexas A&M AgriLife – Stephenville.
Soil samples from the first and second sampling periods have been processed and preliminary statistical analyses have been conducted. We have analyzed soils from the third sampling period for permanganate -oxidizable active organic matter (Weil et al., 2003) and are in the process of processing and analyzing these soils for aggregate stability, Haney Soil Quality Test, β glucosidase, and total and easily-extractable organic matter. Soils are being statistically analyzed using one-way ANOVA and Pearson correlation coefficients.
Socio-economic research objectives identified in the project proposal focused on 1) farmer decision-making associated with the implementation of conservation agricultural practices and 2) the effect of soil analysis processes used to assess soil carbon sequestration on farmer decision-making. To address the first objective, we have conducted informal discussions and interviews with farmers involved in having their soils analyzed. These discussions occurred over the telephone when we requested the farmer’s involvement in the research and in person at the time of soil sampling. As described below, M.S. graduate student, Lisa Akinyemi, will engage these farmers in more detailed discussions as a component of her survey-based thesis project.
Based on research reviews and on-going interactions with personnel from the Soil Health Institute, we became aware of carbon trading, water quality trading, and ecosystem service markets. While these markets currently provide a small percentage of famers in the US with economic incentives for implementing conservation agricultural practices, public and private interest in these markets appears to be growing. While carbon trading markets have stagnated due to the low trading value for greenhouse gases on the U.S. and international markets, other ecosystem markets have emerged. In 2008, the USDA Office of Environment Markets (OEM) was established to serve as a clearing house for information on programs available to farmers to facilitate their implementation of agricultural practices to protect ecosystems services including carbon sequestration, water quality, wetlands, and habitat biodiversity (Peters et al. 2012; OEM 2016). A public/private partnership formed the National Water Quality Trading Alliance in 2014 to “serve as a central champion, convener and catalyst that will enhance market-based mechanisms for protecting our Nation’s waters” (Troutman Sanders LLP 2014). After over a year of research, discussions, and negotiations, the Ecosystem Service Market program initiated its pilot project activities in January 2019 (Noble Research Institute, LLC, 2019). With the mission statement, “To advance ecosystem service markets that Incentivize farmers and ranchers to improve soil health systems that benefit society,” this program was initially funded by the Noble Foundation but now includes General Mills, the Soil Health Institute, the National Association of Conservation Districts, and the USDA NRCS as sponsor.
Lisa Akinyemi proposes to use a combination of interactive surveys and system dynamic modeling processes to analyze farmer decision-making associated with the implementation of conservation agricultural practices and then how this decision-making may be affected by the availability of funding through ecosystem markets. Following is her thesis proposal abstract:
“Conservation agriculture systems (CAS) have the potential to provide ecosystem services that mitigate critical environmental concerns of global climate change, eutrophication, and aquifer depletion or contamination (Gassem, 2006). Effective CAS enhance ecosystem services by strategically combining multiple best management practices. While the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides land-owners with cost-share assistance, supportive government funding is limited (NRCS, 2018). Alternative CAS funding solutions are being implemented and developed as ecosystem service markets (ESM) (Ecosystem Marketplace, 2017). Water quality trading programs typically provide a single marketplace for total maximum daily load (TMDL) overages to be remedied in three ways: credit purchases from TMDL conservers, improvements to the overage location, or combinations (Chesapeake Bay, 2018). CAS promoting carbon markets include state-regulated cap-and-trades and voluntary offsets (Ecosystem Marketplace, 2017). An innovative public-sector based market that accounts for ecosystem services ranging from pollination to carbon sequestration is being developed by the Noble Foundation (Noble Research Institute, 2018.). Current barriers to ESM programs, such as verification methods and expenses and the low value of ESM credits, need to be addressed to allow ESM to serve as an effective CAS adoption incentive. Increased credit supply from CAS implementers theoretically would increase both the demand for payments and the value of ESM credits (Ecosystem Marketplace, 2017). An interactive survey will be conducted with current Texas CAS producers to understand factors affecting their initial and continued CAS implementation and the potential impact of ESM to further CAS adoption. An economic analysis will be developed using Farm Economic Model (Gassem, 2006). Spearman Rho correlations will be analyzed in R Studio to find relationships from dependent and independent variables. Additional research will use the survey data to inductively develop a system dynamic analysis using Vensim Pro software. This research will help bridge price, targeting, preparation, and expectation gaps between society that depends on ecosystem services and conservation agriculture producers. Bridging these gaps enhance agriculture support personnel’s efforts to further initial, continued, and additional CAS adoption.”
A media file containing the IRB-approved survey that Lisa Akinyemi will use in her thesis research has been uploaded to this document.
Farmers involved in this survey research will include those involved in the soil carbon sequestration soil sampling analyses as well as farmers identified by Soil and Water Conservation District representatives, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension personnel, and personnel from the Noble Research Foundation. We have developed initial communications with Sean Penrith (Gordian Knot) and Debbie Reed (DRD Associates), key coordinators with the Ecosystem Services Market program, and are exploring processes for coordinating our research and outreach efforts with their emerging program.
Colin Mitchell (NCAT) and Barbara Bellows (Tarleton State University) are currently developing a “producer-friendly” document on Ecosystem Markets that are currently available or being developed to provide economic incentives for farmers. This document will be published by NCAT and be available on their webpage. A draft version of this document has been uploaded to the results and discussion section of this report.
Soil Health Research
The availability of new research equipment is allowing us to expand our research capabilities associated with this project. An aggregate stability machine was built to specifications provided by Dr. Maysoon Mikha (Mikha et al., 2005). In conjunction with ai NIFA Capacity Building Grant for Non-Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture, awarded in 2018, we were able to purchase three major soil analysis machines, a Leco 628 CN analyzer, a Seal Analytic AQ300 Discrete Analyzer, and a Gasmet DX4040 gas analyzer. The CN analyzer will allow us to conduct assessment of soil organic matter at a lower cost than would be assessed through the Texas A&M Soil and Forage Testing Laboratory. We will use the SEAL AQ300 to conduct both standard 2 M KCl extractable ammonium and nitrate and Mehlich 3 extractable phosphate as well as analyses of these nutrients using the Haney soil test. The Gasmet DX4040 gas analyzer will allow us to assess microbial activity associated with agricultural practices. Since this machine is portable, we will incorporate its use into both research analyses and on-farm demonstration programs.
Preliminary data assessments have identified few significant differences across land management treatments. In particular, both soil respiration, an indicator of soil mineralization, and mycorrhizal biomass, an indicator of soil aggregation, were similar across treatments. Similarly, aggregate stability and PLFA microbial assessments exhibited greater differences across soil types than across land management practices. Pernangante-oxidizable active organic matter and carbon dioxide evolution from the Haney soil test initially appear to be the best indicators of differences between no-till and conventional till soils. These assessments of soil health are associated with organic matter mineralization rather than organic matter sequestration. This observation may be due to soils being sampled when plants were not actively growing or due to the use of herbicides, such as glyphosate, which has been shown to decrease mycorrhizal growth (Zaller et al., 2014). To test these hypotheses, we included organic farms and field with actively growing crops in our third set of soil testing. Our final set of soil samples will be taken following completion of analyses on the first 3 sets of soil sample, which we plan to complete by June. Soil sample processes and fields to sample will be based on analyses from these initial soil tests.
In tangential, but related work, Grant Falvo, an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, spent the summer of 2018 working with Dr. Barbara Bellows as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) program. He conducted his research on soil carbon sequestration within the bulk and rhizosphere soil of samples taken in less disturbed areas within a riparian buffer and in disturbed continuously grazed areas. Based on assessments of soil organic carbon, aggregate stability and total glomalin of each aggregate fraction, he identified a higher concentration of aggregates and glomalin in rhizospere soils and in less disturbed compared to more disturbed soils. Based on these results, I will be conducting assessments of easily-extractable and total glomalin on selected soils. Soil samples taken during the final sampling period will also include rhizosphere and non-rhizosphere soils. I will also be working with another REU student this summer to follow up on the research initiated by Grant.
The proposed timeline for soil health research associated with this project is as follows:
• Finalize soil analyses on soils sampled during the first – third sampling period: April – July
• Collect final soil samples: June – July
• Present preliminary results at the Southern Region Water Conference (SARE funded) on July 23-25
• Analyzed final soil samples: July – September
• Present finalized results at the tri-societies meeting: November 10-13, 2019.
• Develop research paper based on results and submit for peer-review publication: January 2020
Initial interviews with farmers involved in having soils sampled from their fields described the following factors as potentially constraining their implementation of cover cropping or conservation tillage practices on their farms: 1) cost of equipment 2) retraining of farm laborers in the use of new equipment or new techniques, 3) landlords of rental land who either do not support the use of conservation practices or do not allow farmers to enter into long term leases on the land, 4) variable weather conditions resulting in their not being able to plant cover crops in timely manner or in spring rains not dependably replenishing soil water taken up cover crops over winter, and 5) limited locally-adapted research on these practices. Farmers who started using cover crops using assistance from the NRCS EQIP, noted that the environmental and soil health benefits from cover crops allow for more reliable yields during dry years but do not provide a return on the investment during years with more favorable weather conditions. Consequently, several farmers mentioned that they would use cover crops more consistently if processes for obtaining on-going payments for this input were available. Conservation agricultural practice constraints due to short-term leases exist because these practices typically do not provide a return on investment until the third year of use. As organic matter increases in the soil, the ability of the soil to hold water and nutrients increases. However, initially nutrients are immobilized when crop residues, especially those with high lignin content, are returned to the soil.
Farmers and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents are reluctant to use or promote the use of cover crops, especially in the more arid regions of Texas, such as around Lubbock. This is due to the potential for these off-season cover crops to deplete water that would otherwise be available for use by the main crop. This concern is exacerbated by increasing spring rainfall variability, probably associated with climate change. While typically not mentioned explicitly, lack of locally-adapted research on agricultural conservation practices appears to be a serious barrier to adoption, especially in locations with drier climates or less resilient soils. Lacking locally-adapted practice information, farmers interested in conservation practices may implement tillage practices or plant cover crops that are not appropriate for their location, potentially resulting in practice failure and disillusionment.
Conversely, farmers who have the ability to attend conferences and take risks on their land can become local leaders for conservation agricultural practices. One farmer cooperator, Rodney Schonk, has been a primary catalyst for the adoption of conservation tillage and cover cropping practices in the Wichita Falls area. Mr. Schonk and his brother own a large farm, as well as run a custom planting business. Almost 10 years ago, they attended a cover cropping workshop and training in Missouri and decided to test out what they learned on their own farm. Since then, they not only have expanded their use of cover crops on their farm, they have also used their custom planting business to make no-till equipment and management knowledge available to local farmers. In addition, they now grow a wide variety of cover crops on their land and sell the seed not only to local farmers but also to the local seed dealer. In this way, they have not only influenced other farmers through their example, they have also facilitated the adoption of these practices through the availability of equipment and seed.
The identification and assessment of various carbon trading, water quality trading, and ecosystem services markets has become a central component of this research project. Initial discussions with personnel involved with the California Department of Agriculture, the California Air Resources Board, and the Verifiable Carbon Standards (VCS) program provided details of the complexity of these programs and how these complexities mitigate against the effective involvement of farmers in these potentially beneficial programs. Two major factors limit the viability of these programs. First is the value of carbon credits: a value that is set internationally and is structured more for fossil fuel plants and transportation companies – huge emitters of greenhouse gases – than for farms, several of which need to be aggregated together to off-set the pollution from single smokestack. Secondly, verification of carbon sequestration benefits or mitigation of methane or nitrous oxide production from a farm is difficult and often expensive. While not as precise as soil analyses, several programs are using models such as the Nutrient Trading Tool (NTT) for assessing potential reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution from farms and COMET-Farm for assessing carbon sequestration and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from farms. Both models are available on the web and are designed to be “farmer-friendly.” Bureaucratic structures can reduce the potential price paid to farmers for ecosystem services provided. For example, carbon trading programs may involve technical service providers, verifiers, aggregators, and trade managers.
Personnel associated with the Ecosystem Services Marketplace sought to overcome the previously mentioned barriers in the development of their program. By having the program funding through private contributions from companies interested in promoting their products as “sustainable”, this program seeks to avoid bureaucratic structures often associated with public sector programs. Verification of ecosystem service provision by farms will primarily involve the use of NTT and COMET-Farm in conjunction with basic soil analyses. Finally, farmer understanding and willingness to be involved in the program will be enhanced by field testing the methodology with farmers who have long worked with and have an established trust relationship with the Noble Foundation.
Two documents that describe the structure, function, potential benefits, and implementation constraints for the broad range of ecosystem service markets are in close to final draft form. These documents are described in detail in the Education and Outreach section of the report. In mid-April, personnel from the project collaborator, NCAT, will be meeting with personnel from Noble Foundation to discuss potential integration of our project research, outreach, and education activities with those of the Ecosystem Services Marketplace Program. Project PI, Barbara Bellows, will also continue to discuss these interactions with Debbie Reed, the newly appointed program director.
M.S. graduate student, Lisa Akinyemi, defended her thesis proposal on March 21, 2019. Her timeline for conducting and analyzing her research activities is as follows:
- Conduct farmer surveys: April – June
- Submit proposal for SARE graduate student grant: May
- Conduct informational interviews with technical support personnel: May – August
- Analyze farmer survey information: May – July
- Work with NCAT personnel and project intern to collect soil samples and develop structure for systems dynamics discussion sessions: May – August
- Present preliminary project results at the Southern Region Water Conference (SARE funded) on July 23-25 and at the Soil and Water Conservation Society Annual Meeting on July 28-31.
- Conduct systems dynamics discussion sessions with farmers, technical support personnel, and educators to more effectively understand interactions among factors that influence farmer decision making regarding use of conservation agricultural practices.
- Develop systems dynamics analyses of decision-making interactions and how those processes may be affected by the availability of funds from ecosystem service markets.
- Present close to finalized results of research at the tri-societies meeting: November 10-13, 2019.
- Finalize thesis and write papers (2 currently proposed) for peer-reviewed publication: Spring 2020.
In addition Colin Mitchell and Barbara Bellows will continue working on the farmer-friendly document on soil health and ecosystem marketing programs, scheduled to be published by NCAT / ATTRA by May, 2019. A draft version of this document is attached: Ecosystem-Services-ATTRA-publication-Draft-Document
Throughout the project, we have used a participatory and interdisciplinary approach to research and education. In identifying farmers to be involved in this project, we have worked with personnel from NRCS, SWCD, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension offices, and NCAT; people who have developed long-term personal and professional relationships with farmers in their area. When deciding to work with farmers to collect soil samples, we contacted the farmers in advance to discuss the project with them and obtain information about their farming practices and decision-making regarding the use of conservation agricultural practices. We also met with them during the process of soil sampling to thank them for their assistance, ask them more about their farming practices, and determine what type of educational, outreach, or research assistance would be most useful to them.
In developing our educational and outreach information about ecosystem services markets, we initially identified people associated with carbon trading markets in California. Then we developed networking contacts through them to talk with people involved with the rice ecosystem service markets in Arkansas and Louisiana. Colleagues at the Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research (TIAER) provided detailed information about the Nutrient Trading Tool (NTT) and its use in evaluating agricultural environmental impacts for use in water quality trading programs. Former interactions with the Willamette Partnership assisted with the identification of additional water quality trading networks. Collaboration with NCAT in the development of a farmer-friendly document on ecosystem service markets led to additional networking connections. Through involvement with the Soil Health Institute and attendance at their meetings, we became aware of the Ecosystem Services Marketplace and initiated discussions with principal entities in this program, including Debbie Reed, who was later selected as the Program Director.
From the academic perspective, this program has involved six students in conducting soil analyses, networking with personnel involved with ecosystem service markets, interacting with farmers and technical service personnel, data analysis, and providing presentations. The addition of M.S. graduate student, Lisa Akinyemi, and Agricultural Economics Associate Professor, Dr. Edward Osei, to the project has enhanced the interdisciplinary perspective of this project. Their focus on determining the level of ecosystem service payment required to influence farmer decision-making has helped connect the soil health and socio-economic components of this project.
As project involvement with ecosystem service markets developed, so did project collaboration between Tarleton State University and NCAT. This renewed collaboration began with the development of a farmer-friendly document to be posted to the NCAT / ATTRA webpage and is expanding to the exploration of greater interaction with the Noble Foundation and the Ecosystem Service Marketplace program as well as various in-person workshops to be held in the upcoming year, and the development of various videos and podcasts to be posted to their webpage.
Recognizing the time limitations of farmers and their technical support personnel, our outreach activities will be conducted in conjunction with planned activities of NRCS, SWCD, Texas A&M AgriLife, and NCAT partners and collaborators. Personnel from NCAT and Tarleton State University will also collaborate on the development of on-line educational and outreach documents and videos.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Education and Outreach Activities
Initial stages of project development focused on strengthening interactions with farmers who were involved in the proposal development stage of the project, identifying additional farmer collaborators, and determining our appropriate role in the presentation of information on soil health and soil carbon sequestration. As such, we have met with farmers on a one-on-one basis to discuss their farming operations and farm practice decision-making processes. We have also talked on a one-on-one basis with technical experts in the fields of both soil health and ecosystem service marketing programs. Personnel associated with this project have attended and participated in soil health management and field assessment meetings and workshop to develop enhanced networking contacts and identify potential venues for integrating project information into future workshops and trainings. Increased student involvement in this project has allowed for outreach of information on project activities to the student community through student oral and poster presentations.
An invitation to participate in a soil health workshop held in Karnes County helped to both solidify the two components of this project as well as to obtain excellent insights from farmers and farm support personnel on the potential interests and farm level benefits from ecosystem service market programs. Barbara Bellows and undergraduate research assistant, Scott Hardeway, provided a presentation on soil health characteristics, how those characteristics provided ecosystem services to society, and how ecosystem service programs currently operate and can be modified to provide farmers with economic incentives for their conservation farming practices. We were pleased and impressed with the feedback we obtained from our presentation. Many farmers expressed a high level of interest in becoming involved in ecosystem service markets. A couple of farmers, who were members of Ducks Unlimited, provided information about how that organization is working with other entities to develop some type of ecosystem service marketplace to protect potential duck flyway feeding grounds. (see informational documents for a copy of the PPT presentation provided at this workshop.)
While outreach activities by this project have admittedly been limited in the first two years, the solid foundation of project collaborators and farm-based support will allow us to focus the majority of our efforts during the third year of the project. Additionally, the recent hiring of two more student workers will allow for more rapid assessment of soil samples as well as allowing for the collection analysis of a fourth set of samples that had not been initially scheduled to be included in the project. A summary of our activities to date and planned actives for 2019-2020 is as follows:
Collaborator meetings and discussions – 2017-2018
- Outreach to farmer participants to engage them in project participation,
- Outreach to NRCS soil health personnel to coordinate with outreach events
- Hiring and training of undergraduate student researchers
- Attendance by Barbara Bellows at the Soil Health Institute 2nd annual meeting to obtain up to date information on soil health analysis methods.
- Meeting with farmers and others associated with the Wichita County SWCD to discuss soil health and the involvement of farmers and NRCS personnel in the promotion and implementation of conservation tillage and cover cropping practices.
- Coordination of the TRACS conference at Tarleton State University by Barbara Bellows. While this conference focused on sustainability practices that can be implemented on college campuses, soil carbon sequestration assessment methods and farming practices can be incorporated into campus-based teaching gardens as well as soil and crop science laboratory exercises.
- Attendance by the PI and an undergraduate researcher at the meeting of sustainable agriculture researchers and farmers in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA).
Collaborator meetings and discussions 2018 – 2019
- Outreach to farmer participants in Karnes, Bell, Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacey to engage them in project participation,
- Outreach to NRCS soil health personnel to coordinate with outreach events.
- Interactions with faculty associated with the ecological agricultural program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to discuss potential research collaboration
- Hiring and training of new undergraduate student researchers
- Oral and PPT presentation to senior seminar class by undergraduate student researcher on her permanganate oxidizable readily available carbon assessments on project soils
- Poster presentation at the Tarleton State University Student Research Symposium by M.S. graduate student Lisa Akinyemi on her proposed farmer decision-making systems dynamics research
- Oral presentation at the Tarleton State University Student Research Symposium by senior undergraduate student Scott Hardeway on the structure and function of carbon trading programs.
- Attendance and stakeholder interactions by undergraduate and graduate students at the soil health workshop in the Wichita Falls area sponsored by Dr. Paul DeLaune and others associated with the Texas A&M Research and Extension office – Vernon.
- Soil Health and Soil Ecosystem Markets Programs oral and PPT presentation given by Barbara Bellows and Scott Hardeway at an NRCS – SWCD Soil Health workshop held in Karnes County.
- Attendance by Barbara Bellows at the Soil Health Institute meeting on Soil Health and Human Health. Interactions at this meeting provided additional information regarding soil health analysis procedures and help provide contacts for obtaining information about the Ecosystem Services Marketplace program.
- Interactions among NCAT personnel, Holistic Management personnel, NRCS soil health personnel, and Barbara Bellows at farms near Fredericksburg to discuss soil health indicators and farmer-based assessments of soil health.
- Attendance by Lisa Akinyemi at Soil Conservation Practice workshop in Riesel, TX
Planned education and outreach activities for 2019-2020
- Completion and publication of a farmer-friendly document on soil health and ecosystem service programs to be posted on the NCAT / ATTRA website by June, 2019
- Publication of project webpage (currently in close to finalized form) by May 2019
- Completion and submission for publication in a peer-reviewed journal of a review article on ecosystem service programs for farmers by August 2019.
- Presentation of initial research results on farmer surveys focused on conservation agriculture practice decision making and the impacts of potential ecosystem service market payments on those decision to be presented at the SARE-funded Southern Region Water Conference on July 23-25 and at the Soil and Water Conservation Society annual meeting on July 27-30.
- Development of videos and web-based training programs by NCAT in conjunction with other project collaborators on the topics of:
- Assessments for determining potential soil carbon sequestration
- Ecosystem market programs and how to facilitate the initiation of a program in your state or watershed
- How to use the nutrient trading tool (NTT) and COMET-Farm to assess ecosystem services on your farm or ranch (possibly 2 videos – one for crop farms and one for grazing operations)
- Soil health in the field: above ground and below ground indicators
- Farmer and technical service personnel workshops to be held in conjunction with NRCS, Texas A&M AgriLife, and NCAT cooperators and collaborators.
- Additional activities may be developed based on interactions with Debbie Reed and others associated with the Ecosystem Services Marketplace program.
While farmer participants were already knowledgeable about cover cropping and conservation tillage practices, and had used their knowledge to promote these practices among their neighbors, they were not familiar with the concept of potentially obtaining payments for carbon credits. Farmers expressed interest in the potential development of another source of financial incentive for implementation of these conservation farming practices and noted that additional incentives could help farmers who have not adopted these practices to be able to transition.
Farmers in the Wichita Falls area are working with the Texas NRCS soil health specialist, Nathan Hale, to conduct a research / demonstration project on a cover crop field. This project involves the use of deep ripping to penetrate the root pan developed by cover crops. Initial results from this study show that deep ripping has enhanced moisture holding capacity of the soil and plant productivity. Results from this study and other activities being conducted by the NRCS will be integrated with results from our studies to develop integrated outreach messages for farmers and farm support personnel.
In our discussions with farmers, several have noted the need for more "location-specific" development of conservation agricultural practices. Thus, discussions of these practices among farmers in the same area may provide more useful information than more general recommendations provided by technical service providers.
As discussed in the research results section, the implementation of this project has been facilitated by the involvement of the project P.I. in two research and outreach projects funded in 2018. During summer 2018, Dr. Bellows mentored a student associated with the Tarleton Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program as he conducted soil health research on overgrazed and managed grazing pastures. These studies used soil health methods similar to those being used in the SARE project as well as additional methods that will be incorporated into the assessment of soils sampled for the SARE project. Dr. Bellows has selected another student for the REU program for summer 2019. This student will conduct research that will follow up on the results of the previous REU student as well as working to compare field and laboratory based assessments for soil health and soil carbon sequestration.
Dr. Bellows was awarded a $300,000 NIFA Non-Land Grant Colleges and Universities of Agriculture grant in 2018 that has allowed Tarleton State University and the Texas A&M Research Center in Stephenville to purchase three types of soil research equipment. This equipment will allow us to more cost-effectively conduct soil health assessments for farmers associated in this project. The Gasmet gas analyzer will also allow us to provide effective demonstrations of microbial activity and respiration as a component of field days and other workshops.
The increasing involvement of this project in the identification, assessment, and potential promotion of ecosystem service markets probably will be the greatest contribution made by this project. While numerous water quality trading programs currently exist or are being developed, widespread knowledge of these programs as well as the involvement of farmers in these programs is limited. However, environmental assessment tools such as NTT and COMET-Farm will allow these programs to assess non-point pollution and environmental benefits more effectively and thus allow for the inclusion of farmers with lower overhead assessment and verification costs to the program. The creation of the Ecosystem Services Marketplace has the potential for increasing the involvement of farmers in programs where they get economic incentives for their conservation agricultural practices. Due to the broad involvement of public and private sector entities ranging from NRCS to General Mills and ADM, the potential exists for these programs garnering public awareness about the ecosystem services provided to farmers.
While the inclusion of soil assessments in this research was initially proposed to help justify ecosystem service marketing programs, initial assessments showing significant differences in soil health properties across soil types may be more effectively used to help identify conservation agricultural practices that are most appropriately adapted to local conditions.
Outreach for this project has been delayed due to various unexpected factors. Based on initial discussions with NRCS, the PI believed that the NRCS soil health specialist and other NRCS personnel were more involved in farmer outreach meetings than they actually are. Similarly, very few Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents are involved in conducting trainings on either soil health or on conservation tillage practices. Thus, the strategy for developing farmer outreach meetings has needed to evolve to become more aligned with local SWCDs and non-profit sustainable agricultural organizations, such as NCAT.
As this project has evolved, the PI has identified a seeming disconnect between the soil health and cover cropping research being conducted by Texas-based researchers with USDA ARS and Texas A&M AgriLife Research and outreach programs being provided by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Based on discussions with farmers and NRCS personnel, this disconnect appears to be partly responsible for the low level of farmer implementation of cover cropping and conservation tillage practices in many areas of Texas.
Expansion of our soil sampling and outreach efforts to the southern section of Texas has allowed us to include organic farmers into the program while enhancing the involvement of NCAT in project outreach and educational activities.