Indicators and Soil Conservation Practices for Soil Health and Carbon Sequestration

Final report for LS17-277

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $312,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2020
Grant Recipient: Tarleton State University
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Barbara Bellows
Tarleton State University/ TIAER
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Project Information


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.

Project Objectives:

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.

  1. 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.
    1. Engage all participants in project development and implementation through the formation of on-line and face-to-face communication networks.
    2. 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.
  2. 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.
    1. Assess and identify differences in priority SCS assessments among the various cropping and grazing systems analyzed.
    2. Through collaborative interactions between researchers and farmers, conduct soil health assessments on fields that were sampled for technical analyses of SCS.
    3. Assess relationships between priority technical SCS analyses and land manager-relevant soil heath indicators.
    4. Assess relationships between priority technical SCS analyses and conservation practices that enhance SCS as defined by NRCS conservation practice standards.
    5. Assess relationships between priority technical SCS assessments and agricultural and SCS criteria identified by carbon credit aggregators.
  3. 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:
    1.  And initial research results, revise research assessments to focus on priority indicators of SCS and soil quality.
    2.  Create and present outreach information on conservation-based land management practices and benefits.
    3. 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.
  4. 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.
    1. Develop and implement farmer group meetings and peer-to-peer interactions through interactions involving project researchers, technical support personnel, and farmers.
    2. Develop and maintain project websites to enhance outreach to and communication among project participants, including farmers and technical support personnel.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  5. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. Use project research results to identify combinations of existing NRCS conservation practices that may be combined to effectively enhance SCS.
    3. 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.
    4. Work with carbon credit aggregators to develop accreditation methods and carbon payment processes for farmers implementing SCS-enhancing practices.
    5. Encourage implementation of SCS-enhancing practices in other locations through participation of project participants in professional meetings and conferences.
  6. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. Monitor adherence of project research, interaction, and outreach processes to stated project timelines.
    3. Coordinate regular meetings among researchers to compare, evaluate, and integrate research data.
    4. Develop evaluation tools to assess effectiveness of outreach processes to farmers, technical support professionals, extension personnel, and researchers.
    5. Implement on-going processes for modifying project implementation processes to address issues and concerns identified through evaluation processes.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • James Hooser - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Rodney Schronk - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Terry McAlister - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Tommy Henderson - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Gene Klein - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Cody Gruhikey - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • William Lalk - Producer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Clemens Kuiper - Producer
  • Barry Evans - Producer (Educator)
  • Chad Hahn - Producer (Educator)
  • Gregory Moczygemba - Producer (Educator)
  • Mark Gotthardt - Producer (Educator)
  • Lois Kim - Producer (Educator)
  • Juan Raygoza - Producer (Educator)
  • Diane Padilla - Producer (Educator)
  • Katie Lewis (Educator and Researcher)
  • Harvey Kahlden (Educator)


Materials and methods:

Soil Carbon Sequestration Research

Soil samples were collected from fourteen farms across Texas during 2017, 2018, and 2020 to determine the impact of soil management practices, soil type, and climate conditions on soil health parameters. 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. During August – September 2018 additional soil samples were collected from 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). During July-August 2020, soil samples were collected from three farms involved in land conservancy programs. These farms were located near Wise County (Bolar and Purves clay loam soils), Cooke County (Tinn and Sidell clay soils), and Hunt County  (Houston Black clay soil).

During the 2017 and 2018 sampling sessions, we took 4 replicate soil samples at 2 depths, 0 -15 and 15 – 30 cm at each farm. At each farm, we established a grid, 20 m long by 30 m wide. Each replicate sample consisted of 6 subsamples collected along the 20 m transect. Replicate transects were located in parallel lines 10 m apart. The subsamples were combined and divided into sample bags for air-dried soil analyses and bottles for refrigerated storage prior to aggregate stability analyses. During the 2020 sampling sessions, soils were only sampled from 0-15 cm at each farm.

Samples from the 2017 sampling season 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), aggregate stability (Acosta-Martinez and Zobeck, 2004), and total carbon analyses were conducted at the soils research laboratory at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station in Stephenville. Samples from the 2018 and 2020 sampling sessions were analyzed for soil nutrients, permanganate-oxidizable active organic matter, aggregate stability, total carbon, and easily-extractable glomalin (Wright and Upadhyaya, 1996).

Results from soil analyses were statistically analyzed using R to conduct one-way ANOVA and Pearson correlation assessments.


Socio-Economic Research

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.

Mixed-methods interviews and public-access data mining were conducted with two stakeholder groups: 1) producers involved in conservation agricultural practices and 2) agricultural support personnel. Twenty-two conservation agricultural producers from 13 Texas counties: Bee, Custer, Dewey, Dewitt, Erath, Gillespie, Hamilton,  Hidalgo, Karnes,  Mason, Swisher, Wichita, and Willacy, and 3 Oklahoma counties: Ellis, Haskell, Kiowa, were recruited by 1) contacting producers involved in a transdisciplinary research project, 2) attending various Soil Water Conservation meetings, workshops, and annual conference, 3) contacting Noble Research Institute’s consultants, and 4) networking with producers locally. Selected producers had four or more years of experience using cover cropping, conservation tillage, or managed grazing practices. Each producer was engaged in an open-ended telephone interview process that lasted 60-90 minutes. Questions covered demographics, changes in farm management practices over time, factors affecting changes in farm management practices, and factors that constrained implementation of farm management practices. Participants were also asked economic questions designed to determine the impact of land management practices on farm profitability.

In addition, 20 stakeholders were engaged in shorter interviews at various conferences including the Texas Wheat Producers Workshop (Vernon, TX), Texas Water Resources Workshop (Riesel, TX), the Southern Region Water Conference (College Station, TX), and a soil health workshop at Roan Ranch (Fredericksburg, TX). These less structured interactions were conducted to obtain insights from farm support personnel including NRCS, SWCD, and non-profit sustainable agriculture agency personnel. Information obtained from direct interviews was compared with information from secondary sources including published farmer case studies and farmer surveys as well as agricultural census and Farm Service Agency data. 

Spearman Rho correlations were analyzed using R Studio to find relationships from dependent and independent variables to identify factors most critical for farmer conservation agriculture decision making. System dynamic analyses were conducted using Vensim Pro software to determine interactions among economic, environmental, and socio-political factors affecting farmer decision-making. An economic analysis was conducted using Farm Economic Model. 

Outreach and Educational Information on Soil Health and Ecosystem Services

Information from soil health and farmer decision-making socio-economic research was used to develop three farmer-friendly publications and three webinars posted on the NCAT-ATTRA webpage. We also incorporated into our publications and webinars quotes, case study information, and analytical findings obtained through interactions with personnel from the Soil Health Institute, the Noble Institute, American Farmland Trust, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Protection Program, the California Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation, Ecosystem Service Marketplace, the Colorado State University COMET program, the Arkansas Rice Program, the National Network on Water Quality Trading, and other soil health and ecosystem service trading programs. These organizations provided us with historical information on program development, analytical data, and plans for their future program development. Publications and webinars were designed to provide comprehensive, research-based information within the context of farm management decision-making. Each publication included a detailed list of scientific references and a guide to publications and organizations that can provide additional information. All publications were reviewed by technical experts for scientific soundness, grammatical clarity, readability, and relevance to farmers. 

Research results and discussion:

Soil Health Research
Soil health and soil carbon sequestration results showed few significant differences across land management treatments. Almost all analyses conducted, including aggregate stability, glomalin related proteins, soil respiration, microbial biomass, and PLFA microbial assessments exhibited greater differences across soil types than across land management practices. Similarly, the percentage of organic matter in aggregates larger than 10 mm proved to be significantly different across soil types but not different according to management practices. Permanganate-oxidizable organic matter appears to be the best indicator of differences between no-till and conventional till soils. Preliminary results indicate that levels of permanganate-oxidizable organic matter in aggregates larger that 10mm might be more sensitive to management changes than levels of permanganate-oxidizable organic matter in bulk soil samples. The high clay Blackland (Vertisol) soils consistently showed the greatest aggregate stability, permanganate oxidizable organic matter, and percent of organic carbon in aggregates larger than 10 mm while sandy loam soils consistently exhibited the lowest values for these parameters. Potential reasons for observed differences across management practices may be due to the limited amount of cover cropping implemented on farms analyzed or the limited amount of residue remaining on the soil during the growing season. While several farmers described using cover crops, field observations at the time of sampling indicated limited residue cover. In tangential research conducted by a student associated with an NSF REU program in 2019, soil respiration as measured with a Gasmet DX400 showed significant differences between fields subject to different levels of grazing intensity.
Despite funding for this project having ended, we are continuing to conduct analyses on soils collected using IDC funds from the project. We have also identified additional statistical analysis assistance to examine interactions among various data parameters.

Socio-economic research
Socio-economic research used GIS, US Agricultural Census data, survey and case study information from the literature, detailed interviews with 22 conservation agriculture producers, and interactions with farm support personnel to determine factors affecting farmer decision making regarding the adoption of an integrated combination of conservation agricultural practices or conservation agricultural systems (CAS). In addition, we examined agricultural ecosystem services marketing programs and the potential for the economic benefits provided by these programs to influence farmer adoption of CAS.
Table 1 Example questions from the open-ended telephone interviews conducted with farmers.

Interview sections Sample questions
Demographic Tell me about your farm/ranch.
  How many acres are used in the agriculture production you participate in?
Environmental What environmental benefit/loss have you experienced as a result of this implementation?
Conservation Training What conservation agriculture outreach programs have you learned from?
Economics How did economics influence your decision to implement conservation agriculture practices?
External Funding Have you requested assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)?
Land Tenure What percentage of the land operated is leased to the decision-making operator?
Other Factors What other factors have influenced your decision to implement conservation agriculture practices?

Factors stated by interviewed agricultural producers as most important in their decision-making for adopting and maintaining CAS practices included: maintaining soil health and reducing soil erosion, enhancing farm economics by increasing crop diversity or enhancing the sustainability of crop production, the information provided by agricultural educators, and access to government funding such as NRCS cost-sharing. Not surprisingly, soil health and control of soil erosion were the most important CAS decision-making factors for all respondents since these practices are primarily designed to reduce soil erosion, increase soil organic matter, and enhance the biological health of soils. The relative importance of other decision-making factors differed according to farm type. Row crop farmers considered soil health and erosion control and farm economics as the two most important factors affecting their decision to use CAS.

While CAS adoption by farmers has been promoted primarily through educational, technical assistance, and economic support programs, interviewed row crop farmers considered those programs to be only half as important as the environmental and economic impacts provided by CAS. For farmers with a combination of row crop and grazing practices, access to external funding was almost as important as soil health and erosion control. These farmers also had larger farms and tended to be more involved in agricultural policy decision-making than the row crop farmers. Interestingly, farm support personnel perceived both soil health and access to CAS technical and educational assistance to be almost twice as important to farmers’ CAS use decision-making than was reported by farmers.

Farmers who have large enough farms and a dependable labor force could attend conferences and take risks on their land. Subsequently, these farmers became local leaders for conservation agricultural practices. One farmer cooperator attended a cover cropping workshop 10 years ago, was able to test what they learned on their own farm and have since 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 following figures are provided as an uploaded media document
Figure 1. Factors affecting CAS farmer decision making according to farm type or being a farm technical or educational support person

Figure 2. Factors affecting CAS farmer decision making according to the percent of each decision-making factor was supported by each of 3 farm type or being a farm technical or educational support person

Factors identified by these producers as constraining their use of CAS practices included 1) cost of equipment, 2) 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, 3) variable weather conditions resulting in their not being able to plant cover crops in a timely manner or in spring rains not dependably replenishing soil water taken up cover crops over winter, 4) limited locally-adapted research on these practices, 5) crop insurance policies, and 6) ridicule by neighbors. Land tenure had a relatively minor impact on CAS adoption by farmers since all owned at least some of the land they farmed. It did, however, often affect where CAS was used. Several farmers stated that they used CAS on all their owned land but only on rented land where they had long-term leases. Primary reasons for not using CAS on rental land were requirements by landlords to use conventional practices or short-term leases. Short-term leases constrain CAS use 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. Some farmers described how they educated landlords by showing them benefits they obtained on land currently managed using CAS. Through this process they sought to obtain landlord permission to implement CAS on the rented land. Competitive renters appear to be aware of the potential economic and environmental advantages from long-term CAS managed land. Several farmers and farm support personnel noted that some people were offering to pay higher rent levels for land that had been managed using CAS. Respondents suspected that these people wanted to take advantage of the higher productivity of this land.

Both farmers and farm support personnel noted that stipulations of agricultural programs constrained their implementation of CAS. Commodity and crop insurance programs limit the use of crop rotations. The U.S. Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 encourages CAS adoption with specific guidelines that still limit localized adaptation for producers requiring a safety net. More specifically, both cover crops and dual cropping systems are mentioned in the U.S. Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 with specific guidelines restricting adaptation and flexibility.

Some farmers noted that NRCS cost-share program contracts did not account for farmers’ need to modify farming practices based on weather conditions. For example, heavy autumn rainfall may prohibit farmers from planting cover crops, yet they reported that NRCS programs did not accommodate their need to extend their contracts. Farmers also 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. Additionally, data documentation by the US Agricultural Census and privacy rules by NRCS limited our ability to assess the implementation of CAS across locations and over time.

The US Agricultural Census provides limited detail on conservation agricultural practices. Only conservation easements, no-till, reduced till, cover crops, alley cropping, and rotational grazing are listed as options on the survey. Census data is combined according to practice but not separated by farms. Thus, it is difficult to determine if CAS practices are being implemented in combination on fewer farms or implemented separately on more farms. Census information also makes it difficult determine whether fewer farmers are implementing practices over longer time periods or more farmers implementing practice for a shorter duration.
While few interviewed farmers stated that ridicule by neighbors constrained their use of CAS, several other farmers noted that fear of ridicule may be affecting practice adoption by current non-CAS users they knew. Typical ridicule aimed at CAS users included, “trashy farmers” and “lazy farmers” due to the perceived lack of management rather than different management practices associated with the use of cover crops and conservation tillage.

Mixed messages from researchers and farm support personnel also constrained farmer adoption of CAS. In the arid areas of western Texas, cover crop use can reduce yields of the commodity crop planted during the following spring. This is because cover crops can take up soil moisture, reducing its availability for the following crop. Climate change has compounded this problem by making rainfall patterns increasingly less predictable. Due to these factors, many AgriLife (cooperative extension) agricultural agents working with farmers in western Texas are reluctant to promote cover crop use. Simultaneously, few AgriLife researchers are conducting research on the selection or breeding of appropriate cover crops for arid areas or on cover crop management practices appropriate for arid areas. 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. These conditions occur when private seed or consulting companies advocating cover crop use fill this void, promoting seed mixes that were not developed for specific locations. When farmers experience problems with the growth, soil coverage, or soil health improvement benefits they hoped to gain from these cover crops, they may become disenchanted with cover cropping. Farm support personnel may also use these experiences to further dissuade other farmers from adopting CAS. Conversely, implementation of CAS appears to be related to areas where NRCS, SWCD, and non-profit sustainable agricultural organizations have promoted and prioritized these practices. Individual attitudes are also observed to affect CAS decision making at multiple levels and included statements such as, “It takes belief in self”, “You can’t be afraid to be proven wrong”, and “I have too high of a risk tolerance.”

To determine the economic costs and benefits of CAS, economic and environmental analyses were conducted on 10 CAS farms using the Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT) and the Farm Economic Model (FEM). These tools account for the ecosystem service value of CAS by calculating factors such as the amount of erosion prevented times the economic value of a ton of topsoil or the amount of water stored in the soil versus the cost associated with applying that much water using irrigation. Using these programs, we created scenarios to compare existing CAS practices to hypothetical conservation agricultural practices. These assessments indicated that combinations of conservation practices enhanced both environmental and economic benefits while implementation of conservation tillage alone resulted in limited or no benefits compared to conventional tillage practices.

Information from farmer interviews, farm support person interactions, and economic data were used to develop systems analysis diagrams. These diagrams are designed to model and assess the impacts of various decision-making processes. These diagrams can also be used in interactions with farmers and farm support personnel to stimulate discussions regarding how decision-making factors interact with one another and regarding differences in the priority given to various decision-making factors. These diagrams can also facilitate dialog between different types of farmers or between farmers and farm support personnel to identify differences in perceptions and needs, which can influence the development of effective programs to enhance CAS adoption.

This figure is included in the media file.

Figure 3. Stock and flow diagram with economic and environmental data interrelated.

Follow-up Work.
As discussed in the soil analyses section above, we intend to continue conducting soil analyses associated with this project with the intent of submitting a paper for publication during summer 2021. We intend to incorporate results from the soil analyses with results from the socio-economic paper to develop a document that addresses the question, "Are soil carbon sequestration payment programs ready for prime-time: soil assessment and socio-economic factors to be considered."


Participation Summary
15 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

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.

Farmer outreach
The identification and assessment of various carbon trading, water quality trading, and ecosystem services markets was a central component of this research project. In developing our educational and outreach information about ecosystem services markets, we spoke with people associated with carbon trading markets in California, ecosystem service marking programs with rice farmers in Arkansas, American Farmland Trust ecosystem service programs in Ohio, personnel with the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, and with the Willamette Partnership in Oregon.

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, who receive payments prior to fund allocations to farmers.

Personnel associated with the Ecosystem Services Marketplace have 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. These structures include allowing farmers to obtain funding simultaneously from NRCS and soil carbon programs and processes for facilitating the verification process.

Verification of ecosystem service provision by farms currently involves the use of a variety of tool including NTT and COMET-Farm, another modeling tool from the University of New Hampshire (DNDC), as well as various soil health assessment methods. Within the time farm of this project, various new soil carbon sequestration programs have evolved including Indigo Agriculture and a program being developed by faculty from Rice University.

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown, we held one outreach meeting with farmers in south-central Texas near Kenedy. This presentation, given in conjunction with an NRCS-SWCD meeting for local producers, focused on using soil for ecosystem services and the potential development of soil carbon sequestration markets. Several other outreach interactions occurred throughout the process of farmer involvement in the interview process. Lisa Akinyemi, the graduate student involved in this project, presented project information at three conferences: Soil and Water Conservation Society – 2019, Soil Science Society of America – 2019, and the Texas Water Resources Conference – 2019. Barbara Bellows provided an oral presentation at the Texas Water Resources Conference – 2019. Several outreach events were planned for Spring and Summer 2020. However, with the arrival of COVID 19 and the subsequent need for social distancing, we revised our approach and objectives for outreach activities.

NCAT was invited to subcontract on this project due to their broad range of contacts in the farm community and their expertise in farmer education and outreach. As opportunities for in-person meetings became infeasible, we decided to acknowledge NCAT’s expertise in developing and providing outreach on documents written from a technical perspective but produced in a manner that is accessible to lay readers. Thus, we developed three papers and two webcasts based on information obtained during the soil and farmer interview research activities. The documents developed with NCAT are:

Payments for Ecosystem Services
Authors: Colin Mitchell, NCAT. Barbara Bellows, TIAER
Summary: Describes programs that provide payments that reward farmers for improved and maintained ecosystem services, or the benefits that society receives from the environment, such as clean water, food, air quality, disease regulation, and biodiversity. This publication also discusses the viability and potential costs and benefits of these programs.

Soil Health Indicators and Tests
Authors: Barbara Bellows, TIAER, Mike Morris, NCAT, Colin Mitchell, NCAT
Summary: Describes various components of soil health and tests, including total carbon, available carbon, aggregate stability, and soil protein/glomalin that are used to assess soil health.

Microbial Inoculants
Authors: Barbara Bellows, TIAER, Mike Morris, NCAT, Colin Mitchell, NCAT
Summary: Describes the beneficial roles of rhizobia, mycorrhizae, plant-growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR), and endophytes and the potential use of these organisms as inoculants to enhance plant growth

Payments for Ecosystem Services – Part I – Webinar
Author: Colin Mitchell – NCAT
Summary: This webinar provides a guide to the history of payments for ecosystem service programs and different types of payments farmers and ranchers can receive for improving or maintaining ecosystem services including: Direct Payments, Certification Programs, Tax Incentives

Ecosystem Service Markets Payments for Ecosystem Services – Part II
Carbon Markets and Credit Stacking –Webinar
Author: Colin Mitchell – NCAT Features presentations by two experts, Debbie Reed and Jim Blackburn, who are currently working on projects to advance soil carbon sequestration carbon markets and ecosystem services credit stacking programs for farmers and ranchers.

These outreach interactions have generated several tangential products including several grant proposals and conferences. Co-PIs Dr. Bellows and Dr. Muir are involved in a NIFA-funded project on the benefits of biochar for crop production and carbon sequestration. NCAT submitted a proposal to SARE to study the adoption of sustainable grazing and soil carbon sequestration practices by farmers and ranchers across the U.S. NCAT is also hosting a Soil Health Innovations Conference on March 8 and 9, 2021. This conference will address the role of soil in ecosystem services and soil carbon sequestration as well as the role of soil health in crop production.

Undergraduate student involvement in project activities.

Undergraduate students were involved in soil sampling, laboratory analyses, and assisting with data analyses throughout the project. Student backgrounds included environmental science, wildlife sciences, agricultural education, animal sciences, mathematics, and psychology. Despite the diverse and typically non-agricultural background of the students involved in this project, all gained insights into soil health, farmer decision-making, and the complex multidisciplinary perspectives required for assessing sustainable agriculture issues. All students appreciated the exposure to systems thinking that involvement in this study provided them.





Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
10 Other educational activities: Collaborator meetings and discussion, outreach to farmer participants to engage them in project participation, hiring and initial training of undergraduate student researchers, attendance at the Soil Health Institute 2nd annual meeting (2017) and the Soil Health Human Health meeting (2018) 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. The PI and undergraduate researcher, Tracy Barefoot, attended the meeting of sustainable agriculture researchers and farmers at the annual meeting of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA) meeting. At this meeting, we were able to initiate the identification of organic and sustainable agriculture farmers who could become participants in the project. In fall 2018, undergraduate student, Tracy Barefoot, and graduate student, Lisa Akinyemi, attended a joint NRCS-Texas A&M AgriLife Soil Health workshop in the Wichita Falls area to network with farmers and technical support personnel and become more familiar with the soil health parameters and soil conservation practices being addressed in this project. Lisa Akinyemi attended several soil health and cover cropping workshops to meet farmers and farm support personnel and conduct interviews with them for her thesis project

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers participated
16 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

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

Development of documents and webinars through NCAT.

Payments for Ecosystem Services
Authors: Colin Mitchell, NCAT. Barbara Bellows, TIAER
Summary: Describes programs that provide payments that reward farmers for improved and maintained ecosystem services, or the benefits that society receives from the environment, such as clean water, food, air quality, disease regulation, and biodiversity. This publication also discusses the viability and potential costs and benefits of these programs.

Soil Health Indicators and Tests
Authors: Barbara Bellows, TIAER, Mike Morris, NCAT, Colin Mitchell, NCAT
Summary: Describes various components of soil health and tests, including total carbon, available carbon, aggregate stability, and soil protein/glomalin that are used to assess soil health.

Microbial Inoculants
Authors: Barbara Bellows, TIAER, Mike Morris, NCAT, Colin Mitchell, NCAT
Summary: Describes the beneficial roles of rhizobia, mycorrhizae, plant-growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR), and endophytes and the potential use of these organisms as inoculants to enhance plant growth

Payments for Ecosystem Services – Part I – Webinar
Author: Colin Mitchell – NCAT
Summary: This webinar provides a guide to the history of payments for ecosystem service programs and different types of payments farmers and ranchers can receive for improving or maintaining ecosystem services including: Direct Payments, Certification Programs, Tax Incentives

Ecosystem Service Markets Payments for Ecosystem Services – Part II
Carbon Markets and Credit Stacking –Webinar
Author: Colin Mitchell – NCAT Features presentations by two experts, Debbie Reed and Jim Blackburn, who are currently working on projects to advance soil carbon sequestration carbon markets and ecosystem services credit stacking programs for farmers and ranchers.

Learning Outcomes

20 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • 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.

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

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 with this project. The Gasmet gas analyzer also allowwd 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 to garner 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. 

Socioeconomic analyses involving interviews with a broad range of farmers and farm support personnel involved in conservation agricultural practices indicated that decision-making regarding the adoption and continued use of conservation practices is very complex. While economic factors pay an important role in this decision-making process, and the availability of payments for soil carbon sequestration or ecosystem services could enhance farmer adoption of conservation practices, many other factors may mitigate against those benefits. These factors range from inconsistent information or locally-relevant research on conservation practices, particularly cover crops, farm policy programs such as crop insurance programs, and the willingness of landlords to have farmers implement conservation tillage practices.

Our research, similar to several other studies, found few significant differences in soil health characteristics across farm management practices, although we did observe differences across soil types. While not providing equal benefit to all farmers, from an ecological perspective, greatest carbon sequestration may be obtained on farms with soils having relatively high clay content.


Outreach for this project was 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. 

The focus of this project was affected by the availability of a graduate student for this project. The graduate student selected, while initially indicating interest in soil research, decided to continue her undergraduate focus on socioeconomic factors affecting farmer decision-making. This interest provided critical insights into factors affecting farmers' decisions and the potential role of ecosystem service payment programs in influencing those decisions.

Unfortunately, I was not able to identify a graduate student to conduct the critical soil health research for this project, and instead relied on undergraduate researchers. While I was fortunate to work with some good student workers, I found that I was limited in my ability to conduct the level of assessments required to complete this project in a timely manner.  While I, unfortunately, cannot report that we have produced a publication yet based on this research, I am continuing to work with my undergraduate students and my former graduate student to combine the soil science and socio economic studies into an interdisciplinary publication. 

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. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.