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
Stevens County 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 is a newly-established network of local producers interested in learning more about soil health, conducting previously-funded SARE research projects, 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 ten group meetings 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.  

Ten research projects will be implemented through the Research to Grassroots Grant.  All 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. 

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.

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.

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, 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
  • Emilee Arner - Producer
  • Merritt Atchison - Producer
  • Rebecca Cahill Kemmer - Producer
  • Denise Ebbighausen - Producer
  • Joe Greco - Producer
  • Keith King
  • Michelle Lancaster - Producer
  • Lorna Mackowiak - Producer
  • Kerry Michaelis - Producer
  • Diane & Gary Monroe - Producer
  • George Thomas - Producer
  • Bob Thornton

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 Health Testing
Objective:

Participants learn about soil health testing from the lab perspective

Description:

July 18, 2020 virtual meeting of the NE Soil Health Stewards was held via webinar. Key note speaker was Kyle E. Bair, PhD, head soil scientist of Soil Test Farm Consultants, inc. from Moses Lake Washington.  Presented the basics of soil health and the labs testing process.  Three landowners discussed their proposal for a Cover Crop without Grazing demonstration project to be considered for cost-share funding.

Group discussion on different types of grazing and planned for a tour of the Cover Crop projects in the fall. 

Outcomes and impacts:

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

Cover Crop farm tour
Objective:

Visit 2 farms who have implemented late summer cover crops to demonstrate goals and objectives.

Description:

Scheduled for October 17, 2021 a field tour was planned to visit two farms who had planted cover crop late summer. To show progress and discuss purpose and intended outcome open to the Soil Health Stewards workgroup and public.  A follow up tour is planned for spring prior to termination of crop.

 

Outcomes and impacts:

Work was done to consider Covid-19 issues working with the health department. Event was cancelled due to weather turning bad and increased restrictions due to Covid-19

Spring tour is still in planning process and may include more stops or demonstrations on soil health.

Educational & Outreach Activities

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

Participation Summary

1 Extension
1 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
20 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

1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

3 Summer cover crop projects were completed by small farmers, 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 current 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 ant next workgroup meeting.

1 Fall cover crop project was planned and approved by the CD board for cost share,  crop was planted in September 2020

3 Bale grazing projects were planned and approved for cost share November and December of 2020

 

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.