The Soil Health Stewards: Establishing a Producer-Driven Soil Health Research Network in Northeastern Washington

Progress report for RGR20-005

Project Type: Research to Grass Roots
Funds awarded in 2020: $70,583.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G358-20-W7906
Grant Recipients: Stevens County Conservation District; Pend Oreille Conservation District; Ferry Conservation District; Washington State University Extension, Stevens County; Washington State Department of Agriculture
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Alex Case-Cohen
Pend Oreille Conservation District
Co-Investigators:
Jeanne Bateman
Stevens County Conservation District
Dave Hedrick
Ferry Conservation District
Dean Hellie
Stevens County Conservation District
Nils Johnson
Washington State University Extension
Charlie Kessler
Stevens County Conservation District
David Marcell
Pend Oreille Conservation District
Leslie Michel
Washington State Department of Agriculture
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Project Information

Abstract:

The Northeastern Washington Soil Health Stewards (SHS) group was established in 2018 and is network of local producers interested in learning more about soil health, and increasing the adoption of practices that have been shown to improve soil health. Funding from the Research to Grassroots Grant will assist ten landowners in implementing previously-funded research projects on a site and context-specific scale in order to determine whether or not these practices are suitable for the region.

In order to increase understanding and awareness of the importance of soil health in the region the group will hold meetings, farm tours and a workshop to network and inform local landowners of soil health practices and ideas that may be successful in northeastern Washington. In 2021 2 virtual meetings, 2 farm tours, and 1 field day were held and planning has started for an annual meeting in February.  The purpose of these meetings are to provide a place where producers can engage with other like-minded individuals, learn from experienced local growers and ag professionals, and receive feedback and support for their research projects.  The group expects to grow from 10 to 30 participants over the duration of the grant.  At the end of 2021 the group had grown to 67 members and had 58 posts on google groups platform. We will be considering shifting to Facebook for 2022 and the remainder of this grant to see if can expand further.  

Workshops will be held on an annual basis that will be open to the public.  These events will showcase research projects; host prominent local, regional and national speakers; and will provide other demonstrations that show local growers and the public the benefits of improving soil health.  We expect attendance to these events to increase from 30 to nearly 100 participants by the end of the funding cycle.

Ten research projects will be implemented through the Research to Grassroots Grant.  Most of these researchers will be farmers who are members of the SHS group.  Five of these individuals will be given funds for research implementation, including supplies (seed, amendments, equipment rentals, and other purchases) and costs for conducting soil tests.  Members who conduct research will report to the group in order to receive feedback and support from the group. In 2021 6 projects were completed with soil testing which started in 2020 5 winter bale grazing 4 with cost-share funding and 1 winter cover crop w/o livestock which received cost-share funding.  Another 4 summer cover crop projects were started 2 completed with cost-share assistance, 1 without cost-share assistance and 1 withdrew project because of drought very poor germination rates landowner decided to do a conventional summer fallow. 3 of these projects has soil samples taken but issue with the lab requires resampling.  Final reports are being worked on but not completed. 

In summary, conservation district staff anticipate that this grant will enable local growers to increase their soil health knowledge and understanding, thereby improving the region's soil health.

Planning for 2022 we will have a small workshop in spring, hoping to bring more partners for a larger regional workshop this coming winter. 4-5 half day farm tours.  Meetings or 1-2 hour events will depend upon ability to do inspersion will rely on outside farm tours.  SCCD has applied for funding to cover soil health sample testing through the Washington Soil Health Imitative with the hope this will provide additional information on current SARE projects.  Currently in the planning stage to install a couple of demonstration plots at the newly acquired WSU research farm in southern Stevens County and reaching out to additional landowners for 3-5 more small demonstration projects.

Project Objectives:
  1. Establish a baseline for soil health (knowledge) in the region
  • All participants of the Soil Health Stewards group will complete a pre-survey to determine their current knowledge and to ask questions they may have concerning soil health. To determine a baseline for soil health, all research participants will conduct soil health and fertility testing before they implement new practices.
  1. Increase farmers' knowledge and acceptance of new soil health practices through experiential learning.
  • Participants of the Northeastern Washington Soil Health Stewards (SHS) group will receive technical assistance and networking opportunities to learn more about previously-funded SARE projects and will apply them to the Northeastern Washington area.
  • Group meetings and workshops will answer producers’ questions related to soil and plant health. Experienced local growers or technical assistance providers from other agencies (Washington State University, Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Western Cover Crop Council, and others) will provide expertise during workshops.  Farmers will gain education and experience from a multitude of experience growers, ag professionals, and scientists, thereby improving their soil health knowledge.
  • Conducting at least 10 research projects with trusted ag professionals a peers will provide producers the experience, technical support, and social capital they need to verify they adopt new soil health practices.
  1. Improve soil health (knowledge) throughout the Northeastern Washington region
  • It is crucial for the successful adoption of soil health practices to reach out to at least half of the ag producers in the Northeast Washington region.  By the end of the funding cycle, we will: increase SHS group membership from 10 to 30 participants; increase workshop attendance from 30 to 100 attendants; double the use of soil health practices (cover crops, rotational grazing, no-till pasture management, etc.) in the region compared to historic levels of implementation; and increase farmers' knowledge and acceptance of new soil health practices through experiential learning.
Introduction:

Over the past few decades, the topic of soil health has been identified as a central component to agricultural and environmental sustainability (Doran & Zeiss, 2000); however, it is unclear how effectively this information reaches end users (producers, ranchers, land managers, etc.) and whether or not these individuals are actually improving their soil health.  In order to ensure the implementation of soil health practices, it is necessary for farmers, ag professionals, and scientists to work collaboratively (Hoffman et al., 2007).  In order to address these issues, the Northeastern Washington Soil Health Stewards (SHS) group will host regular group meetings, sponsor annual workshops, support research based on previously-funded SARE projects, and provide ample networking opportunities.  This project is a continuation of the Amador Rangeland Soil Health Research and Education Project (https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/OW19-349/) because it considers both practices that have been shown to improve soil health as well as proven methods that increase the adoption of these practices.

Based on attendance to the inaugural SHS group meeting held on November 16th 2020, it is clear that a need exists for increased access to educational opportunities concerning soil health in the region (see Attachments A, D, and J).  Of the 22 attendants to the meeting, at least half agreed to join the SHS group (Attachment C).  Research suggests that establishing a network of like-minded producers can be an effective tool for implementing new conservation practices because: 1) farmers are experiential learners, 2) social capital plays an important role in the acceptance of new ideas, and 3) working with a single trusted ag professional has been shown to increase the adoption of new management regimes.

Multiple sources show that farmers are experiential learners, meaning that experience is one of the most important factors when making a management decision (Knapp & Fernandez, 2009; Burton, 2014; Stuart et al., 2018).  As explained in Jensen et al., 2007, farmers are considered doers, users and interactors, which means physically engaging with a practice is how they adapt it into their management regime.  Through ten research projects, the SHS group will provide financial and technical resources over a three-year period to ensure that producers have an opportunity to work with new practices in a context-specific setting.

In addition, social capital, the trust, norms, and character of social networks, is closely linked to farmer identities and consequently their preference for implementing certain management practices (Hatch, 1992; Kizos et al., 2014).  Farmers use neighbors and local communities as a point of reference for themselves to compare their own practices to others and the group as a whole (Hoffman et al., 2007).  Creating a network of like-minded individuals who conduct research collaboratively will ensure success, since it can be difficult for many farmers to defect from the group in order to try something different (Luloff et al., 2012).  Finally, when adopting new management practices, farmers will trust individuals in their community they consider to be 'good farmers' as well as a single individual from the agricultural industry, from either private or public sector (Luloff et al., 2012; Stuart et al., 2018).

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Merritt Atchison - Producer
  • Rebecca Cahill Kemmer - Producer
  • Denise Ebbighausen - Producer
  • Joe Greco - Producer
  • Keith King - Producer
  • Michelle Lancaster
  • Lorna Mackowiak - Producer
  • Kerry Michaelis - Producer
  • Diane & Gary Monroe - Producer
  • George Thomas - Producer
  • Bob Thornton - Producer

Education

Educational approach:

A workgroup is established of local farmers and landowners "NE Soil Health Stewards".  They meet quarterly facilitated currently through this grant.  Due to Covid-19 the meetings have been held virtually and there has been sharing of information through google groups e-mail.  The methodology is for the members to share experiences and ideals. Followed by debate and sharing of articles.  During scheduled meetings guest speakers are invited to share their experience and research.  Press releases and  fact sheets developed locally or found through reputable sources are sent to the group and and public through newsletters and newspapers.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Soil Heal Stewards Meeting, Livestock topics and Direct seed equipment
Objective:

Soil Health Stewards (SHS) to meet discuss topics of concern and discuss future events

Description:

February 20, 2021  virtual meeting of the SHS 9:00-11:30.  Alex Case-Cohen moderated and average of 15 people attended.  some dropping off and adding in as meeting went on.  Presentations from members on electrical fencing basics, 2 members discussed their bale grazing projects.  Question came up and internal discussion on no-till drills ran out of time will be a topic of future discussion.

Discussion for future meetings knowing there are approximately  50 members in the NE SHS soil health google group how to get more to attend the events.  Many discouraged by not being able to meet in person.

Outcomes and impacts:

15 group members participated in the meeting not including presenter and grant staff.

Soil Heal Stewards Meeting, Seed selection and cover crops, interseeding to reestablish hay fields
Objective:

2 speakers were invited to discuss and answer questions on seed, cover cropping and interseeding of established perennial hay fields.
Provide information and allow for questions for the SHS and public.

Description:

April 17, 2021  virtual meeting of the SHS 9:00-11:30.  Alex Case-Cohen moderated with 7 people attending.   Meeting was recorded  and we know an additional 5 or 6 people listened to.  Bill Thurston owner of Ginger Snap Farms seed, feed and fertilizer dealer gave a presentation on seed selection and cover crops.  Jon Paul Driver local Timothy Farmer discussed his experience with use of no-till drill to interseed fields of grass and alfalfa hay ground to extend production of perennial fields.

Survey of SHS most tired of virtual meetings and weather good to work out side

 

Outcomes and impacts:

Survey of SHS most tired of virtual meetings and weather good to work out side

SHS Field Tour
Objective:

Get SHS and interested parties out in the field to see some soil health practices in action.

Description:

May 22, 2021 Alex Case-Cohen coordinated a tour of 3 farms in Pend Oreille County who are members of the SHS group and participating in projects.  The three projects were with walking distance so only had to meet at one spot for parking.  2 of the sites had practice bale grazing the past winter multi species with beef cattle with different age groups together and horses.  Both sites feed daily but fed on the ground in a different spot each day.  The key benefit is the even distribution of the manure and wasted feed.  One landowner commented on the lack of weeds in the feeding area compared to the untouched area. The other site looked at was a crop field in rotation from perennial grass hay into a couple of years grain hay for weed control.  there was a no-till drill on site with demonstration on how it worked and discussion on the utilization of roundup for weed control.  One of the sites pastures pigs in brush forested area.  They pasture heavy on area contained with electrical fence and at the end of the season grass seed is broadcast for the hoof action to incorporate.   The past 3 years were compared all were impressed with the quality of grass and the lack of brush.

Outcomes and impacts:

20 people attended

SHS Field Tour
Objective:

Get SHS and interested parties out in the field to see some soil health practices in action.

Description:

On June 26, 2021  Dean Hellie and Gregg Duponte (SHS member) coordinated a farm tour with 2 sites.  Site 1 Clover Mountain Dairy, small organic dairy which bottles its own milk and sells local and at farmers markets.  They walked the group through their operation.  Then out to the pasture where the rotational graze moving the livestock daily.  They have a WSU weather station on the property that was toured and handout on how to access the data on the internet.

The second site was Ola Aina Farms a small sheep operation which also rotational grazes moving the sheep daily in the wetter higher productive areas and weekly on other areas depending upon conditions.  There was demonstration on electrical net fencing and how to install and maintain.  the farm provided a BBQ lunch for those who wanted to net work more.

Outcomes and impacts:

6-26 Farm Tour Agenda Ola Aina Farm tour handout pasture mgt CMDFarmTourFlyerEdited

28 attendees at Clover Mountain Dairy

25 attendees Ola Ania Farms

Farm and Field Day Soil Health and Forestry
Objective:

To introduce the Vetter Farm to the neighbors and Public and provide education and outreach on soil health and forestry topics important to Northeaster Washington.

Description:

October 2, 2021 SHS, SCCD, POCD and WSU Extension Forestry coordinated a Farm and Forestry Field day for the public.  This was a day event at the Vetter Farm 160 Acres recently donated to WSU.  Attached the schedule for the day 4 forestry topics and 4 farm topics 50 minutes then rotate to the next station. Attendees were allowed to float between forestry and farm topics.  Sub sandwich lunch was provided through the program registration costs.

Oct 2 Farm and Field Day, Itinirary

Outcomes and impacts:

50 people attended not including presenters and coordinators.  We felt it was very successful and well attended as it was planed to be a much larger even planning starting in spring with the primary sponsor as the Washington Farm Forestry Association, WSU etc. But due to Covid concerns and changes some agencies were not allowing staff to participate, concerns over vaccination mandates etc. that the event was cancelled.

With many Covid restrictions lifted planning was resumed and included more agriculture and soils to be added.  But there was not much time for outreach.

Weather was great, all comments back that attendees learned a lot enjoyed the day. Oct 2 Farm and Field Day, Itinirary

Educational & Outreach Activities

15 Consultations
9 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Study circle/focus groups
3 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

3 Extension
8 Agency
1 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
50 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

20 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
3 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

5 Bale grazing projects 1 winter cover crop and 3 summer cover crop projects were completed in 2021.  Soil health tests were performed and staff is currently working on summarizing into  1 page fact sheets which will be made available to the public. 

Because there is no currently catalog of soil health testing for the region no specific determination has been made as to effectiveness of project.  Future projects will help to build that database for comparison and improvement.  All projects report reduction in soil erosion due to wind and water.

Because of Covid 19 scheduled farm tour of these projects was cancelled pictures will be presented at next workgroup meeting.

Staff current developing projects for 2022 

We have applied for funding through Washington Soil Health Imitative to fund 8 to 10 soil health lab tests to help in establishing a baseline for the region to complement the tests being done through this grant. 

 

 

Recommendations:

Partnering with WSU potential a grad student research on the WSU farm partnering with the area Conservation Districts and SARE funding.

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.