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. Three soil types and locations in north central Texas were selected: Blackland soils (vertisols, representative soil-Houston Black) located between Hillsboro and Temple, redbed clay derived soils (the Tillman-Vernon-Hollister soil association) located near Vernon, and sandy loam soils (representative soil – Windthorst sandy loam) located near Stephenville and Camanche. Soil management treatments are conventional till, no-till short term (3-5 years), no-till long term (10 years +), and no-till and cover crops. 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 required by carbon credit aggregators.
Soils were sampled at seven farms between October 3 – 10, 2017. At each farm, we took 4 replicate penetrometer assessments to 30 cm and 4 replicate soil samples at 2 depths, 0 -15 and 15 – 30 cm. 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), Β glucosidase (Dick, 2011), and aggregate stability (Acosta-Martinez and Zobeck, 2004) are currently being conducted at the soils research laboratory at Tarleton State University while genomic assessments of surface soils using PCR (Fierer, 2012) are being conducted by the laboratory of Dr. Jeff Brady with Texas A&M AgriLife – Stephenville.
We expect to complete the remaining soil analyses by the end of April and conduct statistical analyses on our results in May. SCS will be analyzed for each assessment using one-way ANOVA with cropping system as the fixed effect. Pearson correlation coefficients will be used to calculate among soil variables. Based on assessments from the initial assessments, priority SCS and soil health assessments will be identified. During the subsequent sampling periods, only the priority SCS and soil health analyses will be performed. Soil health indicators will be technically analyzed using one-way ANOVA and Pearson correlation coefficients as well as based on surveys testing farmer interest and motivation to modify practices based on soil health assessment results.
As we organized soil sampling times and met with farmer cooperators, we talked with them about their farming practices. We also met with farmers associated with the Wichita County SWCD. Starting in May, we will work with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) personnel to conduct interactive one-on-one and group interactions with farmers about their farming practices, changes made in land management practices over time, reasons for implementing practice changes, field-based factors that motivate farmer decision making, social and cultural factors affecting farming practices, economic factors affecting choose of farm practices including impacts of tenancy and equipment costs, impact of information sources on decision making, and the economic value of incentives required to motivate implementation of conservation practices.
Through conversations with farmers, they will identify and then talk with people from agencies, businesses, and organizations who have been influential in affecting farm management practice decision-making. They will meet with both people who have been influential in encouraging conservation tillage and other soil health enhancing farming practices as well as with individuals or representatives from organizations that may have resulted in farmers being discouraged from implementing conservation practices.
In addition to addressing current farming conditions, we will provide farmers with information about carbon sequestration programs being implemented in California and elsewhere. These farmer discussions, along with discussions with NRCS and SWCD personnel, will be used to identify modifications in implementation processes necessary to make these programs feasible in Texas.
Soil Health Research
In July, Dr. Bellows attended the 2nd Annual Meeting of the Soil Health Institute. Information presented and gained through interactions at this meeting resulted in some modifications to the soil analyses protocols to be implemented. One of the primary objectives of participants at the Soil Health Institute meeting was to identify and standardize single methodologies from the multiple and sometimes confounding methods for analyzing similar soil health properties. Thus, while soil aggregation was included in the proposal as a critical component in the assessment of soil carbon sequestration, recent literature includes a variety of methodologies for this assessment. Through this meeting, a standard method for this assessment was identified along with the designs for a custom-made piece of equipment to be used in the analysis. This equipment is currently being built and should be available for use by mid-September. Additionally, soil enzyme analyses were added to the protocol based on recommendations from other researchers at this meeting. An ARS researcher working in Lubbock, Veronica Acosta-Martinez, is conducting analyses of carbon mineralization and enzyme activities associated with soil aggregates using soil from irrigated cotton fields. Throughout this research process, we intend to share our findings with Dr. Acosta-Martinez so as to identify assessment methods that are most effective in assessing carbon sequestration potential across a range of soil types and climate conditions.
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. While recent genomic research by Dr. Brady indicates that, at least in the short term, soil microbial populations are not affected by the application of glyphosate, the microbial populations in these fields may have been affected by either multiple applications of herbicides over the years, soil fertility management practices, or the short term loss of a “living root in the soil” between the time that the cover crops are terminated ant the time of root growth and expansion by the main crop being grown in the summer. In an attempt to obtain clearer indications of processes occurring in the soil,we plan to include some organic farms during the second round of soil sampling. We will also sample a native prairie to obtain a “natural soil ecosystem” baseline assessment. In addition, we will analyze a subset of the soil samples from the first sampling period for herbicide residues.
The second sampling for this experiment will occur in late April or early May, 2018. We will resample the farms sampled around Vernon and on the Blackland soil. We will replace the farms sampled in the Stephenville area with 2 – 3 organic crop farms and adjacent conventional farmers. All of these farms will be located on similar soils. We have tentatively identified these additional farmers, and will continue working with Texas A&M AgriLife and the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA) to finalize these farmer participants.
A graduate student was hired in August 2017 to work on this project. Unfortunately, personal factors resulted in her leaving the project. While another graduate student has not been finalized to work on this project, one student has indicated strong interest in the project. Three undergraduate researchers are currently involved in conducting soil analyses and analyzing the statistics on the sample results. These undergraduates will also participate in the second round of soil sampling and farmer interviews, as well as the follow up soil analyses and statistics. They plan to present results from their research during the 78th Annual Meeting of SWCD Directors, to be held October 29-21, 2018 in Fort Worth,TX and at the Texas A&M System Pathways Symposium to be held November 1 – 2, 2018. at the West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. One of the undergraduate students is currently learning Cascade CMS to be able to initiate and update the webpage for this research and education project. This web page will be launched by the beginning of July.
Dr. Barbara Bellows, the project P.I. has become involved in two related research projects, which may enhance the implementation of research and outreach activities for this project. During the summer of 2018, she will mentor an undergraduate student involved in an NSF REU project, led by Tarleton State University Assistant Professor of Biology, Dr. Christopher Higgins. The undergraduate student being mentored by Dr. Bellows will conduct research comparing soil health parameters in overgrazed and managed grazing pastures. Soil research assessments to be conducted will be similar to those being conducted on soils associated with the SARE project. Dr. Bellows was also awarded a NIFA Capacity Building Grant for Non-Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture to purchase three major soil analysis machines, a Leco 628CN analyzer, a Seal Analytic AQ300 Discrete Analyzer, and a Gasmet DX4040 gas analyzer. Access to this equipment will enhance our ability to conduct analyses at a reduced cost while enhancing the research and educational experience of the students involved.
Socio-economic research did not proceed as rapidly as expected due to the short term involvement of the graduate student hired to work on this project and the limited support provided to this student by the Tarleton State University sociologist hired to work on this project. Currently, a very ambitious undergraduate is picking up on the farmer decision-making research started by the graduate student while initiating research evaluating the policies and implementation practices of carbon sequestration certifiers and integrators.
Interviews with farmer cooperators indicated that the three major factors constraining farmers from implementing cover cropping or conservation tillage practices are cost of equipment and / or retraining of farm laborers, limited outreach and support for these farming practices by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents, and landlords of rental land who either do not support the use of conservation practices or do not allow the land manager to enter into long term leases on the land. While the first two responses have been reported repeatedly in the literature, the constraint imposed by lease agreements was the concern most commonly raised by farmer cooperators. Both conservation tillage and cover cropping practices provide environmental benefits through the control of runoff and erosion. However,these practices require the sequestration or mineralization of organic matter to provide the farmer with economic benefits. This process typically takes at least 2 -3 years. Hence, a one-year land use lease does not provide the land manager with sufficient time to obtain a return on the cost of the seed or equipment used to implement the conservation practice. Land managers who relied on farm workers to plant and harvest crops noted that training a worker to correctly manage a conservation till / cover cropped field required more work since timing of planting was much more critical for fields with residues as compared to fields without residues, since the plant residues can either cool the soil or enhance moisture holding. Both of these processes could delay nutrient mineralization and availability while providing conditions favorable for fungal and bacterial infestations.
The major reason that Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents provide for not promoting the use of cover crops is the potential for these off-season plants to deplete water that would otherwise be available for use by the main crop. However, farmer participants who used cover crops did not experience those concerns. Interestingly, farmers have been the primary proponents and educators for the use of cover crops in Texas. 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 farmer through their example, they have also facilitated their adoption of these practices through the availability of equipment and seed.
Research being conducted on carbon sequestration will result in the production of two final documents. These documents will be a technical document explaining specific government regulatory procedures involved in carbon sequestration practices in agriculture and methods of carbon dioxide measurement. This will be utilized by the Texas A&M AgriLife research group and related actors and a “layman’s terms” document, or a public document, which will be distributed to farmer representative interest groups for examination, balancing of interests, and preparation.The data will be compiled from official carbon sequestration documentation both from academia and government entities. Both of these documents will provide substantial and relevant information about regulatory processes of modern agricultural carbon sequestration practices in locations which are currently practicing them. The technical document will be submitted to an appropriate journal for publication, while the “layman’s terms” document will be posted on the project webpage.
Communication will be established with relevant actors for external input on the regulatory and implementation process of sequestration practices. On-going documents are being developed and discussed on a weekly basis.
Project goals and activities for the spring and summer of 2018 will include:
• Understand how different regulatory agencies and branches of government interact from the federal to state level of government to the representative public to produce carbon sequestration markets which are effective in atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction and in providing farmers with appropriate credit prices.
• Gather a list of active farmer representative groups both in California and Texas.
o Communicate with members of said groups in effort to create a “Layman’s Terms” final document which hits closer to home.•Create an analytical flow chart systematically depicting the entire developmental process of the TIAER Phosphorus Control Practices for Dairy Waste Application Fields Using a Phosphorus Risk Index.
o Analyze each step which the developmental process occurred in.
o Understand how these steps connect and their significance.
• Research relevant government entities involved with agriculture and atmospheric quality both federally and in the State of Texas.
• Create an analytical flow chart systematically depicting the actors and legal paperwork which will need to be involved in the implementation of carbon sequestration regulatory practices on farmland in the State of Texas.
• Produce documentation examining the possibility of a federal-level (nation-wide) implementation of agricultural carbon sequestration practices (derived from California’s model Initiative Process).
• Produce Layman and Technical documentation for distribution.
•Attend Texas A&M AgriLife and NRCS meetings during the Summer to act as a sociopolitical information agent for agricultural carbon sequestration practice implementation regarding current laws and policies upheld by the State of Texas and California.
Since the undergraduate student involved in this work will be graduating at the end of the summer session of 2918, a new socioeconomic undergraduate or graduate researcher is being recruited.
Throughout the project, we intend to use a participatory and interdisciplinary approach to research and education. We will integrate farmer meetings with on-farm soil analyses and rely on farmers as our research experts in land management and adaptation to changing economic and environmental conditions. Researchers will communicate regularly to share research results and develop integrated analyses. The undergraduate and graduate students representing soil science and social science perspectives will work together to ensure integration of social and bio-physical research results throughout the project. They will also work with Tarleton State University researchers, Texas A&M AgriLife researchers, and NCAT sustainable agriculture specialists to coordinate on-farm meetings that will integrate practical farm-based insights with technical research results that provide the scientific basis for observed conservation practice benefits.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Throughout the project, the project principal investigator (PI) will serve as a liaison between researchers and technical support personnel, developing outreach documents and educational materials that translate technical information from research results into information that is practical for and relevant to farmers, extension agents, and farm input providers. These documents will be reviewed by project researchers, technical support personnel, and farmers for accuracy and relevance, and then posted on a project web page. This web page will be maintained by the project PI at Tarleton State University, but be linked to NRCS, NCAT, and Texas A&M AgriLife webpages. Hard copy versions of these documents will also be printed and made available to farmers at various outreach, educational, and peer-to-peer information sharing meetings. This web page will be developed in April and May of 2018 and be accessible by June 2018.
We intend to have initial assessment results from the first soil assessments by May, 2018. This will permit the incorporation of this information into summer and fall meetings for farmers presented by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, NRCS, and NCAT.
Dr. Bellows, the project PI, served as host of the annual meeting of the Texas Regional Alliance for Campus Sustainability (TRACS), held on March 27-29, 2018. While this conference focuses 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. While information from project activities was not available to present at this conference, we were able to identify researchers and outreach personnel who can serve as partners and collaborators in the development of outreach and educational activities as this project moves forward.
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 also 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.
As discussed in the research results section, the implementation of this project will be facilitated by the involvement of the project P.I. in two newly funded research and outreach projects. During summer 2018, Dr. Bellows will be mentoring an undergraduate student as he conducts soil health research on overgrazed and managed grazing pastures. These studies will use soil health methods similar to those being used in the SARE project. Dr. Bellows was also recently awarded a $300,000 NIFA Non-Land Grant Colleges and Universities of Agriculture grant to purchase soil research equipment and to conduct soil health assessments for farmers and gardeners from across Texas. This project will help facilitate implementation of the SARE project by having web pages that provide outreach to similar entities, allowing for less expensive in-house assessment of soil health characteristics, and building stronger collaborative relationships with researchers involved in activities of the Soil Health Institute, a nationwide effort to test and standardize soil health assessment methods.
Through interactions with NCAT, personnel from this project participated in a meeting of researchers and farmers involved in sustainable agriculture research. This meeting was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA). Through interactions initiated at this meeting, this project will be able not only to identify potential new farmer collaborators for the project, but also to be able to implement a strongly requested activity of developing a web page that identifies researchers and farmers from across Texas who are involved in sustainable agricultural research and serve as a mechanism to match researchers with interested farmer participants. This new web page will be used to direct viewers to the web page of the SARE project and thus enhance project outreach.
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. During summer 2018, the PI intends to meet with Texas A&M soil science researchers associated with the Soil Health Institute and work to identify methods for better integrating information about soil health and conservation farming practices into the outreach programs of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.