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:
Eric 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 the adoption of these methods in Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, especially by 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, and a recent surge of interest related to carbon sequestration and emerging ecosystem service markets, adoption rates remain low in many parts of the United States and may actually be falling. Controlled studies have often failed to validate the claims of proponents, and many barriers to adoption occur in various site-specific strengths and combinations throughout the Southern SARE region.

With a talented interdisciplinary team that includes six universities, three NGOs, and eight farmer cooperators, we are strongly emphasizing participatory research, peer-to-peer learning, and 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 of regenerative grazing depends on showing that it can be done affordably and at any scale.

The Soil for Water project began as a pilot project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) in 2015. We honed our approach, created new tools, and built a peer-to-peer learning network of Texas ranches that began running on-farm experiments, monitoring their soils and vegetation, and sharing 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 leading a coordinated effort that includes on-farm research, controlled studies, 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 stories of innovative producers from the Southern SARE region in a new Regenerator's Atlas of America. We are welcoming and including partners and 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
  • Erika Berglund
  • Lauri Cellela - Producer
  • Dr. Ken Coffey
  • 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
  • Michael Harlow - Producer
  • Jeremy Huff
  • Dr. John Jennings
  • Dr. Kristal Jones
  • Kara Kroeger
  • Garrett Kunz - Producer
  • Dr. Kelly Lyons
  • Sarah Jewell Morton
  • Lindsay Newsome
  • Dr. Kim Niewolny
  • Dr. Mike Popp
  • Brad Prewitt - Producer
  • Kimberly Ratcliff
  • Al Shiyou - Producer
  • Kenny Simon
  • Katie Trozzo
  • Dr. Ann Wells
  • Claire Whiteside
  • Dr. Allen Williams
  • Kandi Williams
  • Brent Wills

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

The principles of soil health include 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 in order to help landowners take better advantage of the water-holding capacity of soil and 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 is no downside to catching and holding more rainwater in soil, and multiple benefits to productivity and profitability.

 A state-by-state approach

In our project, each state has its own semi-autonomous working group, focused on how to improve support services and increase rates of adoption in their state. Each state-level working groups has a coordinator who 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 that incorporates 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 are equal participants on our team, and all members of the team 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 rainwater 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 an existing 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, Ann 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 compated (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, also recruiting participants for the Soil for Water Project. (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.
  • 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:

We spent our first several months finalizing our contract with Southern SARE, completing agreements with partner organizations and cooperators, and recruiting stakeholders for our state working groups, making a special effort to include representatives from 1890 Land Grant schools. We also had some staff turnover, described below. At the end of the first year of our project (May 2021 - April 2022), most research efforts were still just getting underway, and we did not yet have significant research findings to report. Nonetheless, our project was on track and within its budget.

  • All four of our state working groups got organized and met at least twice. Each one completed a knowledge system mapping exercise where they described baseline conditions in their state and barriers to the adoption of regenerative grazing, as well as research questions, challenges, and opportunities that they wanted to tackle.   
  • Our researchers at the University of Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Virginia Tech organized their teams, purchased equipment, and began their studies of the impact of grazing methods on soil health, best management practices, social and psychological factors affecting adoption of regenerative methods, and the use of drones for rangeland monitoring.
  • NCAT staff conducted rangeland monitoring and soil testing at 15 participating ranches in Texas in the fall of 2021.
  • At NCAT's request, Holistic Management International (HMI) changed its scope of work in order to reach and involve more producers. Instead of introducing a RAMP group (Regenerative Agriculture Mentorship Program) in one of our target states, HMI agreed to hold in-person, virtual, and one-on-one trainings in both Arkansas and Mississippi. HMI held two-day trainings in both states in March 2022, beginning its comparative study of in-person, remote, and one-on-one training methods.

We lost three important members of our team during our first year and had to replace them:

  • Colin Mitchell left NCAT in September 2021. He was responsible for rangeland monitoring in Texas as well as videos and social media. We replaced him with Darron Gaus, a new NCAT employee.
  • Virginia state leader Devona Bell left NCAT in October 2021. We replaced her with Lee Rinehart, a regenerative grazing specialist who has been with NCAT for over 15 years. 
  • Texas state leader Kara Kroeger left NCAT in February 2022. We replaced her with longtime contractor Peggy Sechrist: a well-known facilitator and expert on regenerative grazing who has been involved in the Soil for Water project since its beginning.  
Participation Summary
68 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

We are avoiding traditional lecturing modes that have been proven through cognitive science to be ineffective with most adult learners. We are guided by these 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

50 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
5 Online trainings
13 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
10 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
21 Other educational activities: Short (6 minute) video explaining our project and encouraging participation; Soil for Water Network for peer-to-peer learning; Regenerator's Atlas of America; Soil for Water Forum; 5 blogs; 5 podcasts.

Participation Summary:

460 Farmers
265 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Highlights from Year 1 of the project:

  • Presentations about the project at NCAT Soil Health Innovation Conference in 2021 and 2022, attended by 240 people.
  • Presentations about the project at the Texas Hispanic Farmer & Rancher Conference in 2021 and 2022, attended by 150 people 
  • 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. 
  • 1300 people signed up for the Soil for Water mailing list and received 7 issues of the Soil for Water newsletter.
  • 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 the film premiere and inviting producers to join the Soil for Water Network.
  • 5 blogs and 5 podcasts about the project posted on the ATTRA website.
  • 160 producers participated in the Soil for Water peer-to-peer learning network, forum, or Regenerator's Atlas of America.

Many of these activities were partially funded by grants from the NRCS and the Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation, leveraging Southern SARE's funding.

Project Outcomes

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

Increasing the adoption of regenerative grazing will have 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.

In its first 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 powerful 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 725 people; and
  • creating 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.