Soil for Water

Progress report for LS21-345

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $1,000,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipients: National Center for Appropriate Technology; Understanding Ag, LLC; Holistic Management International; JG Research and Evaluation; Mississippi State University; University of Arkansas; Virginia Association for Biological Farming; Virginia Tech University
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Mike Morris
National Center for Appropriate Technology
Co-Investigators:
Dr. Eric S. Bendfeldt
Virginia Cooperative Extension
Dr. Dirk Philipp
University of Arkansas
Dr. Rocky Lemus
Mississippi State University, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences
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Project Information

Abstract:

In this systems research project, we are identifying practical and regionally appropriate methods of regenerative grazing--by which we mean grazing that improves soil health and enables soil to catch and hold more water. We are trying to accelerate adoption of these methods in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, especially on small- to mid-sized, family-owned farms and ranches.

Despite considerable efforts by many groups to promote regenerative grazing (under various names) over the past 30 years, adoption rates remain low in many parts of the United States and may actually be falling in much of the Southern SARE region. Controlled studies have often failed to validate the claims of proponents, and many barriers to adoption persist.

With a talented interdisciplinary team that includes six universities, three NGOs, and eight farmer cooperators, we are carrying out participatory research, facilitating peer-to-peer learning, and providing support for pasture and rangeland monitoring. We are giving special attention to the needs of underserved and limited-resource farmers—not only for reasons of fairness but because widespread adoption depends on showing that regenerative grazing can be done affordably and at any scale.

The Soil for Water project started out as a pilot project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) in 2015, working with about 20 Texas ranches that ran on-farm experiments, monitored their soils and vegetation, and shared their findings. (Watch a video about the Soil for Water Project.) From NCAT’s regional offices in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia we are now expanding that effort to include more research, peer-to-peer learning (via the Soil for Water network and Soil for Water Forum), mentoring, educational events, and one-on-one technical assistance. We are creating educational materials in multiple formats, including podcasts and professional-quality videos. We are featuring success stories in a new Regenerator's Atlas of America. We are welcoming collaborators from Land Grant universities, NRCS, and grassroots organizations in all four states.

Project Objectives:

(1) Identify practical and regionally-appropriate ways of improving soil health and catching more water in soil.

(2) Launch a new multi-state network of landowners who are conducting on-farm trials.

(3) Improve communication and information-sharing among producers and agricultural professionals who are interested in regenerative grazing.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • James Burch - Producer
  • Larry Holland - Producer
  • Adam Isaacs - Producer
  • Servando Leal - Producer
  • Emily Jost - Producer
  • Doug Myers - Producer
  • LeVonna Uekman - Producer
  • Tony Uekman - Producer
  • Guille Yearwood - Producer
  • Ralph Arrington
  • Dr. Barbara Bellows - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Eric Bendfeldt - Technical Advisor
  • Erika Berglund - Technical Advisor
  • Philip Boyd - Producer
  • Lauri Cellela - Producer
  • Dr. Ken Coffey - Technical Advisor
  • Lucille Contreras - Producer
  • J.B. Daniel
  • Dr. Mike Daniels
  • Dr. David Fernandez
  • Dr. John Fike
  • Matt Fryer
  • Jacob Gilley
  • Dr. Leonard Githinji
  • Juan Gonzalez - Producer
  • Johnny Gunsaulis - Producer
  • Michael Harlow - Producer
  • Jeremy Huff
  • Dr. John Jennings
  • Dr. Kristal Jones - Technical Advisor
  • Kara Kroeger
  • Garrett Kunz - Producer
  • Dr. Kelly Lyons - Technical Advisor
  • Sarah Jewell Morton
  • Lindsay Newsome
  • Dr. Kim Niewolny - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Mike Popp
  • Brad Prewitt - Producer
  • Kimberly Ratcliff - Producer
  • Al Shiyou - Producer
  • Kenny Simon
  • Katie Trozzo
  • Dr. Ann Wells - Technical Advisor - Producer
  • Claire Whiteside
  • Dr. Allen Williams - Technical Advisor

Research

Materials and methods:

Research approach

This systems research project includes:

  • Knowledge systems research. For example: Where are producers getting their information, and what sources do they trust? Which soil tests are most informative and cost-effective for landowners who want to establish a baseline and measure their progress? What pasture and rangeland monitoring methods generate the most useful information?
  • Social science research. For example: What sort of peer pressure do early adopters face, and how can we reduce it? What land stewardship attitudes motivate landowners to regenerate damaged and depleted land? Why do so few graziers monitor their land, and how can we make this easier and more attractive? How can we accommodate legitimate needs for privacy and confidentiality while encouraging a free exchange of ideas and experiences?
  • Economic research. For example: Is the regenerative grazing model financially feasible and profitable? What up-front investments are needed to implement a regenerative grazing system, and what is the rate of return? Are regenerative grazing systems affordable for small farms, or those with limited resources? What is the consumer demand for sustainably-produced meat products in these states, and how can producers tap into these markets?
  • Farming systems research. For example: Why have controlled studies so often failed to validate the claims of regenerative grazing proponents? What methods work well in dry climates, and which ones work better in wet climates? Does soil moisture reliably increase with frequent short-duration grazing periods?

Why we focus on water

Healthy soil carries out many other functions besides regulating water cycling, but we return persistently to the topic of water. The Soil for Water Project began during the Texas drought of 2010-14 to spread the positive message that livestock can (when properly managed) be a powerful tool for improving soil health and increasing infiltration rates and water-holding capacity. An acre of healthy soil holds tens or hundreds of thousands of gallons of water in each foot of soil depth. From a landowner’s perspective, there are multiple benefits to catching and holding more water in soil.

 A state-by-state approach

In our project, each state has its own semi-autonomous working group that's focused on how to improve support services and increase rates of adoption. In each state, a coordinator leads group meetings and serves as a resource person for anyone who wants to try on-farm research or begin measuring changes in their soil health and vegetation. The coordinators are familiar with a wide range of monitoring tools and methods and work closely with Cooperative Extension, NRCS, Land Grant schools, grazing groups, and other farmer membership organizations in their state.

 Our team

Our project team includes agronomic, ecological, economic, and sociological expertise. We have two sociologists, two soil scientists, a philosopher, a veterinarian, a rangeland ecologist, and eight experienced grazing researchers on our team. All team members were chosen because of their openness to new ideas, their curiosity about regenerative grazing, their interest in working on an interdisciplinary team, their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and their desire to take a fresh approach. Farmers participate as equals, and all team members are expected to be innovators.

 

 Methodology and cooperating partners for each objective

Objective 1: Identify practical and regionally-appropriate ways of improving soil health and catching more water in soil.

  • Conduct on-farm research on the impact of grazing methods on soil health in all four states (Dr. Lemus, VABF, cooperating farmers).
  • Conduct controlled studies on the impact of grazing methods on soil health in Arkansas. Researchers will use a 12-acre novel endophyte tall fescue area. Each experimental unit will be approximately 0.15 acres in size and grazed by sheep during variable-length grazing cycles and defoliation treatments, with ongoing measurements of seasonal water use efficiency, soil water, and soil health (Dr. Philipp and Dr. Coffey).
  • Demonstrate the effects of best management practices on cooperating farms, including soil water content and soil quality (Dr. Philipp and Dr. Coffey).
  • Offer pasture walks and field days (Dr. Lemus, Dr. Wells, cooperating farmers).
  • Annual rangeland monitoring and research at 20 Texas ranches that are conducting on-farm trials, summarizing the results in an annual report for the landowner (NCAT Texas office).
  • Soil sampling and testing at a minimum of 20 participating farms or ranches (about five in each state). Analyze soil samples and monitoring data, and assist with preparing landowner reports (NCAT).
  • Study the use of drones for rangeland monitoring (Dr. Lemus).

Objective 2: Launch a new multi-state network of landowners who are conducting on-farm trials.

  • Recruit at least 120 new participants in the Soil for Water peer-to-peer learning network, include at least 12 African American, 12 Hispanic, and 12 veteran participants (all partners).
  • Offer workshops, webinars, and other trainings on use of the LandPKS phone app for land monitoring. At least eight trainings will take place, reaching at least 240 people (NCAT staff in all four offices).
  • Reach out to existing grazing networks (such as the Grassroots Grazing Group in Arkansas), inviting their members to help us evaluate the LandPKS monitoring app. At least 15 farms in each state will test the app and give us feedback, a total of at least 60 producers who will learn about land monitoring through this experience (NCAT staff in all four offices).
  • Evaluate quality of life aspects of regenerative grazing, including economic benefit for participants, diverse and intergenerational participation and relationships, regenerative, resilient capacity of chain elements, and relation to health, wealth, and capacity (Virginia Tech, Dr. Jones).

Objective 3: Improve communication and information-sharing among producers and agricultural professionals who are interested in regenerative grazing.

  • Create a discussion forum for project participants and other interested persons (NCAT).
  • Compare the effectiveness of in-person trainings, live webinars, and one-on-one technical assistance. At least 100 producers in Arkansas and Mississippi will receive one, two, or all three modes of training, and their changes in knowledge, attitude, and intention will be evaluated and compared (Holistic Management International). 
  • Offer at least 16 workshops, webinars, or other educational events per year: four per year in each of our four target states. At least 480 producers from the Southern SARE region will attend these events and be invited to join the Soil for Water network (NCAT staff, Dr. Lemus).
  • Give workshops at the Texas Hispanic Farmer & Rancher Conference in 2022-2023 (NCAT Southwest office).
  • Offer three intensive, two-day workshops on regenerative grazing, including both classroom and field experiences (Dr. Allen Williams).
  • Hold quarterly meetings of project partners in each state that focus on improving technical assistance and removing barriers to adoption. Partners have been chosen to represent widely differing backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs about regenerative grazing (all partners).
  • Create 10 professional-quality videos focused on land stewardship and stories from producers who have adopted regenerative methods (Virginia Tech, VABF).
  • Create multi-media stories, profiles, and success stories for posting on NCAT’s Atlas of Regenerative Farms & Ranches (all partners).
  • Hold four storytelling events in Virginia, to catalyze community capacity and cultural understanding of experiences and realities of food and farming system stakeholders (Virginia Tech).
  • Encourage cross-pollination of ideas through the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation (Virginia Tech).
  • Strongly promote existing relevant resources and services of NCAT’s ATTRA information service in all four target states. (NCAT staff in all four offices)
  • Present project findings at professional meetings (Dr. Lemus).
Research results and discussion:

At the end of the reporting period ("Year Two"), we still do not have significant research findings to report, but many promising research activities are well underway.

  • All four state working groups are active and have been meeting at least quarterly. Each working group is carrying out research activities identified in its Year 1 knowledge system mapping exercise. 
  • Our Texas working group is encouraging and promoting "safe to fail" field trials and will be studying the outcomes as well as the effectiveness of this approach in encouraging on-farm research.
  • We've held monthly meetings by Zoom for information sharing among the four states, featuring producers and researchers on the team as well as our science advisors. Especially in the first year of our project, COVID-19 restrictions limited opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Thankfully these restrictions began diminishing in late 2022. Team-building for this large (65-member) interdisciplinary project has been slower than we would have liked, but our team members are enjoying getting to know each other and becoming more comfortable working together.
  • Our researchers at the University of Arkansas and Mississippi State have made good progress on their studies of the impact of grazing methods on soil health, best management practices, and the use of drones for rangeland monitoring.
  • Researchers at Virginia Tech were delayed in starting their investigation of social and psychological factors behind adoption of regenerative methods but have been approved by the university's Institutional Review Board process and are getting started.
  • Soil sampling and testing has taken place at seven farms.
  • NCAT staff conducted rangeland monitoring at 15 participating ranches in Texas again in the fall of 2022 and sent reports to landowners summarizing the results. (We also conducted monitoring at these ranches in 2021.) We did not do soil sampling at these properties in 2022 but will take and analyze samples again in 2023.
  • Holistic Management International (HMI) held two-day trainings in Arkansas and Mississippi to the spring of 2022, as part of their comparative study of different remote learning methods. The Arkansas training was fairly well-received, but attendance was poor at the Mississippi training. After discussions with our Arkansas and Mississippi team leaders, HMI agreed on a mid-course correction. They have discontinued their planned workshop series and instead will introduce RAMP groups (Regenerative Agriculture Mentorship Program) in Arkansas and Mississippi. These groups were just getting underway at the end of the reporting period.  
Participation Summary
68 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

We are guided by the five principles from the Northeast SARE publication “Sustainable Agriculture through Sustainable Learning: Improving educational outcomes with best practices for adult learning” (Bell, 2012):

  • Provide a safe environment for learning.
  • Identify learners’ prior knowledge and personal views about the content.
  • Link the content to learners’ prior experience.
  • Let learners work together to experiment and solve problems with the content.
  • Give learners choice in content, process, and outcomes.

We are strongly emphasizing peer-to-peer learning through workshops, field days, pasture walks, and participation in the Soil for Water Network, Forum. We also believe in the power of stories, which we are collecting in the Regenerator's Atlas of America and in a series of videos featuring producers who talk about the personal journey that led them to adopt regenerative methods.  

Educational & Outreach Activities

100 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
8 On-farm demonstrations
9 Online trainings
13 Published press articles, newsletters
12 Webinars / talks / presentations
37 Workshop field days
52 Other educational activities: 22 blogs, 20 videos, and 10 podcasts

Participation Summary:

1,557 Farmers participated
778 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Since our project began, we've recruited 235 members in the Soil for Water Network, exceeding our goal of 120. This has included 18 new members in Arkansas, 6 in Mississippi, 79 in Texas, 6 in Virginia, and 127 from other states. Subscriptions to the monthly Soil for Water newsletter have grown to 3,700.

Educational and outreach efforts of our project have included educational events, blogs, videos, and podcasts. 

We've offered 70 educational events  (workshops, webinars, field days, and pasture walks) attended by over 1500 different producers, with at least 750 of these from the Southern SARE region. This exceeds our goal of 48 events attended by at least 480 producers from the region. Here are some highlights:

  • 16 workshops, field days, or pasture walks in Virginia, 14 in Mississippi, 12 in Arkansas, and 9 in Texas. Many other regional or national events also took place.
  • Presentations about the project at NCAT Soil Health Innovation Conference in 2021 and 2022, attended by 240 people.
  • Presentations about the project at the August 22 Southern Family Farmers & Food System Conference, attended by 150 people. 
  • Regenerative Grazing tracks at the 2021 and 2022 Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference, offering 15 workshops attended by about 300 people.
  • Presentation about the project at the Texas Hispanic Farmer & Rancher Conference in 2022, attended by 100 people. 
  • Scholarships awarded to 6 limited-resource producers, enabling them to attend the Soil Health Academy offered by Dr. Allen Williams (Understanding Ag) in Alabama, May 2022.
  • Three other workshops given by Dr. Allen Williams (Understanding Ag) in 2023 in Virginia, Arkansas, and Mississippi, attended by around 140 persons.
  • Two Plant ID and grazing planning workshops at the Roberts Ranch (Comfort, Texas), attended by a total of 85 people.
  • Ogallala Field Day at Tierra de Esperanza Farm (Hereford, Texas), attended by 55 people.
  • Five-part webinar series, "Landscapes that Work for All Life," given by Didi Pershouse and attended by 160 people.
  • Three-part webinar series, "Agriculture in a Water-Scarce Future," given by Dale Strickler (October 2022) and attended by about 300 people.
  • Mailing list for the monthly Soil for Water newsletter grew to 3700.
  • Soil for Water film premiere event, attended by 350 people.
  • Two-day trainings by Holistic Management International in Arkansas and Mississippi, attended by 50 producers. 
  • 6 press releases announcing a premiere of a short film about our project and inviting producers to join the Soil for Water Network.

We've posted 22 blogs on the ATTRA and/or Soil for Water websites:

We've posted 20 videos on the ATTRA and/or Soil for Water websites:

We've posted 10 podcasts on the ATTRA and/or Soil for Water websites:

Some of the activities above were partially funded by grants from NRCS, the Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation, and/or three related Southern SARE grants led by NCAT during the reporting period: "Regenerative Land and Livestock Management for Women" (EDS 21-28), "Demystifying Regenerative Grazing and Soil Health" (ES20-154), and "Scaling Up Production and Local Marketing for Minority and Limited Resource Farmer" (EDS20-18).

Project Outcomes

3 Grants received that built upon this project
7 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Increasing the adoption of regenerative grazing has significant economic, environmental, and social benefits. Economically, regenerative grazing has the potential to increase forage production, drought resilience, animal weight gain, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it has the potential to improve soil health and biodiversity. Socially, it has the potential to facilitate decentralized local and regional food systems by enabling more producers to offer healthy, sustainably-produced meat products to local consumers.

At the end of its second year, our project has supported agricultural sustainability by: 

  • assembling an interdisciplinary team of experts and starting research on the environmental, social, and economic aspects of regenerative grazing;
  • launching a new collaboration of eight organizations, many of whom had never worked together before; 
  • bringing together diverse stakeholders in state-specific working groups focused on improving technical assistance and increasing rates of adoption for regenerative grazing;
  • offering educational events that reached about 2300 people; and
  • facilitating three new peer-to-peer learning opportunities: the Soil for Water network, forum, and Regenerator's Atlas of America.
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.