Healthy Soils Hawaiʻi: Building Better Soil on Agricultural Lands through Soil Health Planning

Progress report for OW20-354

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2020: $49,557.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Oahu RC&D
Region: Western
State: Hawaii
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


Building soil health is paramount to maintain farm productivity in the face of global challenges such as drought, intense storms, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and limited resources such as water and nutrients. Hawai‘i’s unique island landscapes and history of soil degradation through intensive crop production heighten the importance of rebuilding soil health. As organic matter and soil nutrients are depleted, farm operations require greater quantities of fertilizers and water to sustain production and experience increased risk of crop failure due to less climate-resilient soils. Though conservation planning and federal farm bill programs provide a framework to identify and address natural resource concerns on agricultural lands, the pressing concern of how to build and maintain healthy, productive soil on agricultural lands is lost in a morass of competing concerns. In contrast, farmers are prioritizing soil health and seeking tools to address the need.

Our project team will evaluate Soil Health Plans (SHP) as a focused planning methodology that identifies spatially-referenced practices to benefit soil health on the farm-scale. Participating producers will guide decisions to identify new and underutilized soil health opportunities for their operations’ crops and natural resources and any bottlenecks to their implementation. The project will utilize soil health testing to inform producers of the impact of practices already in use by their operations and provide support for implementation of soil health practices. The developed plans and refined planning methodology will educate producers and generate momentum for more farmers and ranchers to build resiliency through increased soil health.

Project Objectives:

Note: The agreement for this project was signed in January, 2021; project activities began on that date and the timeline for activities shifted accordingly. The following report covers activities from the start date of 1/11/2021 through 3/31/2021. 

  • Develop Soil Health Plans (SHP) 
    1. Purpose: Evaluate the use of SHPs to provide producers with a tool that identifies opportunities to build soil health through the implementation of practices such as cover crops, tree establishment, or mulch application
      1. Action: Work with five (5) producers to organize site visits and discussions with the project team to understand producer goals for the landscape
      2. Action: Work with each producer to develop a farm-specific SHP that includes existing and proposed conservation practices supporting soil health
  • Evaluate impacts of soil health practices 
    1. Purpose: Encourage further adoption of practices by measuring the potential impacts of soil health practices at each unique site and to establish baseline soil health data for each producer
      1. Action: Conduct soil testing at paired locations with and without conservation practices 
      2. Action: Determine baseline soil health differences by soil data analysis
      3. Action: Producers provide feedback on the effects of soil health practices  
  • Technical assistance in SHP implementation
    1. Purpose: Support on-the-ground learning for producers to install soil health practices 
      1. Action: Provide technical recommendations/assistance on at least one practice for installation to addressing soil health concerns on the land 
  • Identify challenges to the adoption of soil health practices
    1. Purpose: Survey producers to determine the non-environmental impacts of implementing soil health practices and identify challenges to the adoption of SHP practices 
      1. Action: Conduct a post-collaboration survey with producers geared towards evaluating perspectives of the economic and agronomic costs and benefits of soil health practices 
      2. Action: Identify opportunities and challenges for future development of plans based on feedback provided 
  • Share project findings with the agricultural stakeholders
    1. Purpose: Educate a larger audience on strategies to restore depleted soils. Demonstrating the successes and lessons learned in this project will support others’ work on restoring soil health throughout Hawai‘i
      1. Action: Host outreach activities and report project findings on a variety of platforms (one-on-one and stakeholder meetings, on-farm workshops, webinar, factsheet, newsletters, social media, and at a conference).


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Larry Jefts - Producer
  • Pelayo Alvarez - Technical Advisor
  • Jaime Barton - Technical Advisor
  • Taylor Kellerman - Producer
  • Joan Obra - Producer
  • Andrew Trump - Producer
  • Christian Zuckerman - Producer


Materials and methods:

Project materials and methods for each objective are included in the following sections:


Soil Health Plan Development

Soil Health Plans (SHP) draw on a variety of tools including Oahu RC&D’s 808Planner, California Healthy Soils Initiative, Carbon Cycle Institute, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Nationally recognized conservation practices (e.g.  cover crops, tree establishment, and mulch application) are evaluated and selected to address soil health improvement. The project team will work with producers to identify opportunities to effectively expand the use of these practices in the field as well as to identify the potential for new practices to be adopted by conducting site visits and gathering insights from participating farmers and ranchers.  Conversations with producers in the initial phases of this project will help the researchers build rapport and better understand the operation goals and how they may relate to soil health. While the soil health plans will follow a template of pre-determined components (see below), additional information (such as including a list of prioritized recommendations of practices) may be included to better support the interests of producers receiving plans and representative of what is useful for growers across the state. 

Components of a SHP: 

  • Cover page and farm/ranch characterization: name, location, acreage, operation, planner name, etc. 
  • Existing and Proposed Practices: identifying current and new soil health practices, acreage, operation & maintenance considerations, management strategies, etc. 
  • Maps
    • Current Management / Existing Soil Health Practices Map
    • Proposed Soil Health Practices Map
    • Soil Testing Map (identifying locations of soil testing)
    • Other Maps (Location, Soil taxonomy, Elevation, Annual Precipitation)
  • Discussion/Highlights/Notes 

Materials required

GPS, ArcGIS software, Microsoft Office

Evaluate Impacts of Soil Health Practices

Soil health practices may impact the soil ecosystem via many mechanisms such as encouraging a more diverse microbial community, improving soil structure, or adding organic matter. For example, cover crops may supply nutrients such as nitrogen to the next crop, reduce soil erosion through stabilization and protection from the elements, and break up compacted soils via their roots which improves water infiltration and creates habitat for soil organisms. At each producer’s property, soil sampling will occur in an area of established soil health practice and of no existing soil health practice. Materials and collection methods will follow standard soil sampling protocols of Hubanks et al. regarding soil health analysis in Hawaii. Samples will be analyzed by a contracted laboratory for total carbon, bulk density, and microbial activity. With two soil samples for each producer, this is a total of ten soil samples. Producers will be asked to share observations and anecdotal feedback on practices included in their SHP.

Technical Assistance in SHP implementation

Methods of providing assistance will consist of one-on-one meetings with project team members that have received training in practice installation. The team member on site will help identify the most practical soil health practice for implementation based on current property goals and limitations. Technical assistance will be provided to farms and ranches throughout the duration of the project and feedback provided by producers will ensure the SHP is well understood. 

Identify challenges to the adoption of soil health practices

A producer survey will be used to generate quantitative values of their perspectives on benefits and challenges of soil health practice implementation through the use of survey styles such as likert scales. The development process will draw upon previously conducted surveys through Oahu RC&D to select the format most appropriate for our audience. The survey analysis, designed to generate number values, will help the project team identify which opportunities and conflicts are most pressing to address for future SHP implementation.

Share project findings with the agricultural stakeholders

To share information with various agricultural stakeholders  we will host a suite of outreach events and information dispersal. Workshops will be hosted at two of the producer locations (one on Oahu and one on Big Island) to reach a greater number of interested participants. These days will be organized by our experienced project team, who hosted a total of eight workshops in 2018. This project will use our wide network of social media and organization subscribers to distribute event information as well as findings of this work. At each outreach event, we will provide a before and after evaluation survey of participant learning. Analysis of these surveys will provide us with data on the amount of new information distributed to our community as well as insight for areas of interest for future outreach.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations

Participation Summary

5 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

The outreach in progress has consisted of engagement with five (5) anticipated producers to confirm interest in participation, as well as planning initial consultations with project researchers. All five producers have signed “Farmer Agreement” documents, committing to collaboration on the project and planned deliverables. In March of 2021, two of the five initial consultations were held (one in person, one virtually) to review with each participant the soil health management planning process. 

Pictured above, Christian of Kahumana Farms converses with the project coordinator about soil health and discusses priority interests in soil health planning. 

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.