This project set out to create an audio podcast about basic soil science concepts that would be easily accessible to farmers who are often strapped for time, but are able to listen to podcasts while doing other things. Interest in soil health is increasing, and while there have been extensive efforts to promote the concept of “soil health” along with best management practices, there have not been as many efforts to relay basic knowledge about soil organic matter, which is the foundation of soil health. This knowledge is especially important in light of how our understanding of soil organic matter has changed in the last decade. Because farmers are often the innovators of new agricultural management practices, enhanced understanding of basic soil processes can enhance decision-making with respect to developing management practices that increase soil health. As of the conclusion of the project, we produced four episodes of the podcast decided entirely to soil organic matter, and have plans to produce more episodes based on interviews that were already conducted. The podcast was promoted through Northeast SARE social media (reaching 3,370 people), national SARE social media, at the Northeast Cover Crops Council annual conference (reaching 50 people), and through our email contacts at organizations including PASA and MOFGA. The website has received 1,600 reads.
Episode 1: What does organic matter do for your soil?
Episode 2: Where does soil organic matter come from?
Episode 3: What is soil organic matter, really?
Episode 4: How does soil organic matter stick around?
In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in soil health, soil health indicators/assessments, and management practices that increase soil health. Extensive efforts by government agencies like NRCS have focused on disseminating information about best practices. The foundation of soil health is, arguably, soil organic matter. In recent years, there have also been dramatic changes in our understanding of what soil organic matter actually is and the mechanisms responsible for increasing or decreasing soil organic matter levels. Farmers have keen observational skills and are often the innovators of new practices. In order to enhance decision-making and innovation, it is important to have a strong understanding of the science behind processes. Given the interest in soil health and the changes in our knowledge of soil organic matter within the last decade, we felt it was important not only to promote best practices, but to increase understanding of soil processes.
Technological advances have made new forms of outreach/education possible. We are unaware of any research into using audio only (podcasts) as an educational tool in agriculture, but the medium fits very well into farmers’ busy schedules. When the proposal for this project was written, there were a few podcasts aimed at a farmer audience, but they did not address the basic knowledge niche. There have since emerged even more podcasts for farmers, demonstrating that this is a new way of consuming information and entertainment that could be effective for agricultural outreach. Most of these podcasts are minimally edited, long (50+ minutes), and are taken from a single interview with an individual. While these are valuable resources, they still do not address the gap in information delivery that we perceived at the outset of this project.
The original objectives of this project were:
1. Create an audio podcast and companion website about basic soil science concepts and (some of) the latest research in soil management, including institutional and on-farm research. The podcast should:
a. Be relevant to farmers
b. Be scientifically sound
c. Be engaging as well as informative
d. Include actionable items
2. Measure efficacy of educational materials through farmer advisory panel feedback, surveys, and download statistics.
This project started in 2015 with interviews of 13 individuals. We had a general outline of topics we wanted to address in the podcast, and chose individuals with expertise in those areas. The areas included: soil organic matter, soil health assessments, organic amendments, and cover crops. All the interviews, except one, were conducted in-person, which allowed for better sound quality and more intimacy, but incurred travel costs. Once the interviews were concluded, they were transcribed and labeled for later editing.
The first episode was produced in late 2015 and reviewed by the Advisory Board. There was mixed feedback that indicated major revisions were needed. Some common themes included: the podcasts should be under 30 minutes; they should be very clear upfront about the aims of each episode; they should not make any assumptions about previous knowledge.
Scripts were rewritten in 2016, and one further interview conducted. Once final drafts for scripts were determined in 2017, audio was edited in the Audacity program. Episodes were uploaded to Soundcloud as a hosting service and the podcast was listed in iTunes for easy listening. Full episodes of the transcripts (as pdfs) were uploaded to the website www.soilpodcast.com.
A brief survey was conducted after the podcast release in November 2017 using Qualtrics.
This was not a research project, per se, but it was a learning experience. In retrospect, it may have been more efficient to write drafts of scripts based on topics prior to interviews rather than the other way around. This requires a thorough understanding of the material prior to conducting interview, however, and the preparation for that alone is very time-consuming. A very skilled interviewer might be able to conduct an interview that achieves the learning objectives of each episode without requiring much editing or additional narration, but it is our observation that this type of product may just be very time-consuming to produce.
We produced four episodes and have material for more that we anticipate we will be make into episodes in the future. We feel we did achieve the original objectives of the proposal, although the total time of material fell short of the original goal.
While we did not have a large number of respondents to our survey, of the 15 respondents, only two said the episodes were too long, while the rest said they were “just right.” Interestingly, only five said they regularly listen to podcasts, but 14 said they would like more episodes of this podcast, indicating there is an untapped opportunity for products like this.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The four podcast episodes (and their full transcripts) were released on the website (www.soilpodcast.com) and Soundcloud on November 3 and the podcast was made available on iTunes November 22. Since the release, we have sent emails to our networks and have received commitments to advertise the podcast, but the efforts are still underway. The Northeast SARE office posted it to their social media (3,370 reached), as did the national SARE outreach office. The podcast was announced via the notillveggies.org blog and has received 1,600 reads. It was picked up by an Extension educator in Wisconsin who promoted it via their list-serves and announcements appeared in two Wisconsin-area agricultural newsletters. Additionally, we promoted it at three agricultural meetings this fall including the Northeast Cover Crops Council annual meeting (Nov. 8, 50 people), the New Hampshire Cover Crop meeting (Nov. 29, 25 people), and the Maine Soil Health meeting (Dec. 5, 35 people). We have told organizations with large beginning farmer programs including PASA and MOFGA about the podcast and will continue to follow up with them as we feel it is a valuable educational tool for organizations that train apprentices and/or beginning farmers.
There have been 1,200 total listens to the podcast so far, but many of these are people who have listened to multiple episodes. The first episode has approximately double the number of listens as the second, third, and fourth episodes. This indicates that of the people who start listening to the podcast, about half continue on to listen to all of the episodes. We anticipate this number will continue to grow. We will continue to promote the podcast via our networks and we have plans for releasing more episodes based on the interviews we have already conducted.
This project did not involve farmer-cooperators, as such (four were involved as advisors to give input on topics and feedback on podcasts), and although we have some data on how many people have listened the podcast, we have limited information on how many farmers have reported changes in knowledge. The intended audience includes farmers and the very early data on listeners so far indicates that we had 50% farmer and gardener listeners. At this writing, the podcasts have been published for only a few weeks. We plan to reach out with further surveys to determine impact on farmer knowledge and thinking once the podcast have been available for several months. The surveys will be designed to specifically determine key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness.
This project was unique in that it did not involve the investigation of a specific practice, but was intentionally designed to increase farmers’ knowledge of soil processes and the importance of soil organic matter/soil health. We feel that this foundational knowledge will help farmers in devising their own management strategies that are specific to their farming needs and that will help them achieve the overall goals of increasing soil organic matter, which is the driver of many aspects of soil health. Anticipated outcomes from a deeper understanding of the importance of organic matter as well as the processes that lead to organic matter losses or gains include increased efforts to improve organic matter through reduced tillage and a focus on continuous plant cover via cover crops and/or sod crops in addition to other organic matter additions via manure, compost, or other products.
We had limited time to receive feedback from farmers, but among survey respondents (15), more than 90% said they wanted more of these podcasts. Just 7% said the level of the podcasts was too basic, while the rest said the level of material was “just right”. One farmer commented about the evaluation survey: “When you ask: How did you find the presentation of information? You don’t give the option to people to express how great it is. The only choices are boring, just right and hard to understand… Come on!!! It is just amazing.” Another farmer said “I’ve attended workshops throughout the years on soil health and tried to do reading on my own, but it wasn’t until this podcast that I really understood what it was all about.” Unlike a presentation at a conference, the podcast allows people to listen multiple times if that helps them understand the material. Although we posted the transcripts on the website, only two people have requested them or visited the page.
The podcast was also intended as a resource for agricultural educators and we received primarily positive feedback including: “I just got done listening to your podcasts on soil organic matter. WOW what a wonderful addition to our collective efforts to promote this valued resource;” and “An excellent series of podcasts on soil organic matter. Hopefully most people seriously interested in soil OM and carbon sequestration will listen to these podcasts.” We did, however, receive some negative feedback from one agricultural service provider, including “way too long. Needs to be broken into max 5 min segments. No one wants to hear about climate change. It’s about soil. Keep it about soil. Farmers will adapt to change.” This type of educational product is less prescribed than established forms of communication such as fact sheets, and therefore we anticipated that there would be highly varied responses to it. There will be no podcast that appeals to all listeners.
Although intended for farmers, there has been interest within educational circles in the podcast. One student wrote “The first two episodes help me understand more of what we are doing in our lab as well as growing a deeper appreciation for organic matter.”
We are in the process of communicating with organizations that conduct beginning farmer trainings and facilitate apprenticeship programs because we feel that experienced farmers who employ apprentices could benefit from the podcast as a way to provide educational material without taking away from other activities on the farm. Podcasts allow for the consumption of educational material while doing certain chores that do not require much focus. Many beginning farmers these days do not come to farming from an agricultural or science background, and these podcasts provide them with basic information that is essentially “taught” by scientists and experts in the field.
The same things that made the project successful were also the biggest challenges. That is, producing highly edited podcasts required a substantial amount of time in preparation for interviews, transcription, researching and writing scripts, and editing the final product. This would undoubtedly get easier and more efficient with more practice. The methodology would also vary depending on the goals of the podcast. For example, we foresee that a SARE podcast highlighting individual SARE projects might be a very effective outreach tool, and might, potentially, not require as much scripting and editing because it could follow more of a one-on-one interview format. The audio format is a powerful tool for disseminating information, but it is difficult to do it effectively. We feel there are other areas of basic soil science and agricultural science that could be explored via the podcast format. In addition to farmers, agricultural educators, and students, we feel these episodes on soil organic matter in particular might be of interest to policy makers. This podcast is not limited to a specific geographic region; the material is nearly universal.