Progress report for SNE20-004-MA
Problem and Justification: In Massachusetts and beyond, healthy soil is now generally considered to confer important societal and on-farm benefits, including the potential to sequester carbon, improve water quality, increase resilience to climate change, and improve crop health and productivity. While Soil Health principles, practices and benefits are well known, the relationship between specific practices on each farm and the specific benefits to that farmer and to society are complex. The science regarding the many dimensions of Soil Health continues to evolve, and there are many voices speaking to farmers about this topic, sometimes with different messages. This leads to confusion about which practices are appropriate on which farms and which decisions are supported by scientific evidence. Even for practices with clear benefits, adoption barriers are known to include knowledge gaps, management complexity, financial hurdles, and potential loss of productivity or profitability during transition to new practices. Farmers understand that there are good reasons to adopt Soil Health practices but look to Extension and other service providers to help them assess their options. Although the University of Massachusetts Amherst is developing a strong program in Soil Health and related disciplines and boasts seasoned and new faculty in this field, UMass Extension has lacked the capacity to deliver this expertise to a wider audience.
The opportunity exists for Extension to integrate the Soil Health expertise of UMass faculty, the capabilities of our public and research labs, and the ability of our Extension staff to bring practical and proven solutions to service providers and farmers.
Solution and Approach: Extension and faculty will collaborate to develop a UMass clearinghouse of science-based information and resources, and we will offer education and training opportunities for agricultural service providers.
We will establish a UMass Soil Health Working Group comprised of Extension professionals and faculty in several UMass academic departments. This group will support knowledge exchange on fundamentals of soil science and cutting-edge research in Soil Health. A key goal will be to increase the level of expertise in Soil Health among Extension personnel serving agricultural audiences. Another goal will be to integrate the UMass Soil Testing Lab into the larger Soil Health effort and provide guidance on practice recommendations and the selection of new analyses as lab capacity allows.
In the winter of 2021 (project year 2) and 2022 (project year 3), Extension will hold a winter Soil Health School training event for up to 50 Extension agents and other agricultural service providers. We will also offer 10 in-person and/or virtual workshops over three years. We will support development of educational resources by Extension professionals in multiple programs, including factsheets, newsletter articles, video presentations, and conference presentations.
5 UMass Extension professionals who participate in the Soil Health Working Group and/or Soil Health training opportunities integrate knowledge gained into advice and services provided to 100 farmers, collectively responsible for managing a minimum of 2000 acres of land.
40 non-Extension Agricultural Service Providers (ASPs) who participate in Soil Health training opportunities report increased Soil Health knowledge and confidence and intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 200 farmers.
Agricultural Need: Soil is the foundation of agriculture in Massachusetts. With 525,517 acres of land in 7,241 farms, the practices implemented on this land have important implications for the food system, environment, economy, and people.
Massachusetts farmers want healthy soils that produce abundant crops, resist insects and disease, retain optimum moisture, protect water quality, resist erosion, and sequester carbon. A survey of 10 Extension ASP’s across commodity types resulted in an average response of 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 5 in response to “How valuable to your audience is science-based information on Soil Health principles and practices?” A recent NOFA survey specifically focused on Soil Health elicited responses from 56 Massachusetts farmers managing 735 acres. On a preference scale of 1 to 5 used to rate multiple modes of learning about Soil Health, the average rating was 3.91 for “Farm visit by a soil health technical advisor from NRCS, Extension, or your local state department of agriculture.” The average rating was 3.86 for “Educational workshops/webinars on healthy spoils practices from authorities/experts like NRCS, Extension, or an agronomist with your Conservation District.” In addition, when queried about preferred topics, the following percentages demonstrated interest in topics to be covered under this proposal: 66% Soil Health indicators; 61% Evaluation techniques and observation skills; 61% Tillage reduction methods on-farm; and 55% Cover crop mixes and varieties.
Farmers have a wide range of information sources to select from, but need guidance on applying research-based knowledge to selection of particular farming systems and practices.
The project strategy is to strengthen core knowledge of Soil Health science and practice among Extension and non-Extension ASPs so that they are more effective in offering information and advice to farmers.
We will establish a UMass Soil Health Working Group comprised of Extension professionals and faculty and graduate students across several UMass academic departments. This group will act as a clearinghouse, supporting knowledge exchange, facilitating advanced training on fundamentals of soil science and cutting-edge research in Soil Health, with a focus on interactive problem-solving. A key goal will be to increase the level of expertise in Soil Health among Extension personnel. Another goal will be to integrate the UMass Soil Testing Lab through participation in the Working Group and discussion of potential improvements to the Lab’s analytical offerings and practice recommendations.
We will hold two winter Soil Health School training events for up to 50 Extension agents and other agricultural service providers, including UMass and external speakers. We will also offer 10 in-person and/or virtual workshops over three years, offered through Extension or in partnership with partners seeking to reach similar ASP and farmer audiences. We will support development of educational resources by Extension professionals in multiple programs, including factsheets, newsletter articles, video presentations, and conference presentations.
Agricultural Service Provider Interest
Soil Health is fundamental to farmer success and is of demonstrated interest to Massachusetts farmers. More recently, it is a cross-cutting topic that is of high interest beyond the agricultural sector. The state has made investments in a Healthy Soils Action Plan process, and the establishment of an Agricultural Soil Health grant program at MA Department of Agricultural Resources, and the legislature recently passed a Healthy Soils bill. These developments, in addition to increased NRCS focus on Soil Health practices and metrics in recent years and a strong emphasis on agriculture’s role in climate change mitigation from the Biden administration, mean that Massachusetts farmers and the ASPs who serve them are expecting strong public support for adoption of Soil Health practices in the coming years.
Within UMass Extension, there is a strong desire to be better prepared to meet this demand, and the notion of “Soil Health School” was proposed by our Vegetable Team Leader. In a survey of 10 Extension ASPs, seven stated that they were likely to participate in the UMass Soil Health Working Group and eight stated that they would be likely to participate in one or both Winter Soil Health Schools. Initial outreach to NOFA and NRCS indicates that NRCS would promote the Soil Health School and workshops to its 28 planners and to affiliated TSPs approved for services relevant to Soil Health. NOFA has indicated that up to seven board and staff would participate in some offerings, of which four staff would be prioritized for attendance at multiple workshops. NOFA also estimates that 10 farmers they work with closely would be strong candidates to participate in proposed offerings, and to apply knowledge gained in outreach to other farmers.
- - Technical Advisor
- - Producer
For the “in-house” UMass Soil Health Working Group and related professional development activities, core professional participation will be from Extension employees whose interests and responsibilities directly align with project goals, ensuring participation of a minimum of five Extension ASPs. The Working Group is a supported activity in a separate Integrated Research and Extension (IRE) award, ensuring strong involvement of several faculty members and graduate students with Soil Health expertise but no formal Extension ties. This project and the IRE award complement each other and build on a foundation of strong relationships and expressed interest among Soil Health faculty and extension professionals in creating interdisciplinary discussions groups and collaborating on research projects and grants. We are confident that these motivations will result in engaged and sustained participation in the Working Group and related activities.
For Soil Health School and other external trainings and events, we will rely on existing Extension relationships and networks to reach out-of-house ASPs. These individuals, and associated organizations (e.g. NRCS, NOFA-MA), have a strong interest in Soil Health. Many seek greater engagement from Extension in this area and are willing to promote Extension educational offerings to their audiences, all the more so if we are able to offer CEUs. We will also promote the external offerings to organizations serving historically underserved farmer populations, in hopes that any ASPs with whom they are affiliated will participate. In some cases, ASP commitment will be to participate in a single event, while workshop series will be designed around repeat attendance.
We will use current teaching theory to build effective curricula and activities for workshops and the Soil Health School, with an emphasis on active learning approaches. Curricula will be widely applicable, but we will include some breakout groups by agricultural sector to allow discussion in which participants can identify unique hurdles, experiences, and recommendations for their sector. At other times, the inherent diversity of agricultural knowledge and experience will serve to enrich discussion and create opportunity for new ideas to be shared that can otherwise be missed when teams and fields do not overlap.
Educators will be asked to highlight current Soil Health research findings and will be guided to provide empirical evidence to support their own teachings and recommendations to participants. We will curate a blend of applied educators as well as some educators with a stronger research background. To tackle some common misconceptions or misunderstandings in Soil Health, we will educate attendees on the current recommendations and discuss Soil Health “myths”, or not yet verified practices or claims. Classroom education will also incorporate the review of case studies to translate content to more tangible examples. Moreover, while our target is Extension and ASPs, interested farmers will be able to attend education events. These attendees will be encouraged to share their barriers to adopting Soil Health management practices, success stories, and technical assistance needs in group discussions.
We will develop a workshop series that takes attendees through the full arch of performing their own Soil Health analysis, collecting samples for tests, interpreting test results, and generating appropriate recommendations. In-field demonstrations will train attendees on in-field assessments, with an emphasis on the USDA-NRCS Cropland in-field Soil Health assessments protocol. Beyond empirical tests, participants will receive guidance in how to identify Soil Health vulnerabilities based on visual assessments at farm visits and interviews with growers. Participants will integrate this new knowledge by conducting their own analysis in small groups, forming interpretations and recommendations, and reporting to the broader workshop.
Education will include a speaker with demonstrated success in Soil Health technical assistance who can train participants in revamping their grower-interview techniques. In a facilitated brainstorming season, Extension and ASPs will be guided to develop Soil Health specific questions to improve consultations and farm visits and help guide customized recommendations for each farm and farmer’s individualized needs and goals. The questions will be grouped into general and sector specific questions, and the lists will be made available as resources.
The working group will offer peer-to-peer education in an informal setting, access to academic expertise for Extension staff, and a catalog of relevant expertise at UMass for addressing questions as they emerge. Support for grant applications and educational material development, and review of recommendations, observations, or test results will be available. the group will lead development of Soil Health fact sheets in response to participant-identified needs. In this partnership, faculty gain better understanding of in-field challenges and knowledge gaps that might influence their own research or create opportunities for collaboration and resource sharing.
For recruitment efforts, we will directly measure the number of Extension and non-Extension ASPs who receive recruitment materials, as well as other categories including farmers, faculty, and graduate students.
We will directly measure other Extension outputs specific to the project, including newsletter articles, factsheets, and website visits. We will also require that participating Extension ASPs report other outputs which benefitted from their participation, including: Consultations, Curricula or educational tools, On-farm demonstrations, Online trainings and webinars, Published articles, Focus Groups, Tours and Field days, Workshops, and Other Educational Activities (categories that SARE tracks).
For all participant activities, including working group meetings and external workshops, attendance tracking will be used to identify repeat attendees as a measure of engagement, as well as total head count. We will use post-workshop surveys administered during the program to verify participant demographics, attainment of educational goals, and intentions for future actions to make use of knowledge gained. Adjustments to future workshops will be incorporated as needed based on these surveys (i.e. teaching style, content, or further support needed). Where appropriate, ASPs and Extension will demonstrate increased knowledge as a result of a workshop, captured by pre and post-assessments conducted by event organizers. The assessments are similar to quizzes and go beyond self-reported assessments of increased knowledge on surveys. In some instances, participants will be required to practice writing recommendations during workshops, creating additional verification.
Annual surveys of external ASP attendees will ask how many farmers they consulted with on the topic of Soil Health and will ask how many acres each farmer manages. We will ask them to report other outputs which benefitted from their participation, including: Curricula or educational tools, On-farm demonstrations, Online trainings and webinars, Published articles, Focus Groups, Tours and Field days, Workshops, and Other Educational Activities.
Recruitment (Soil Health Working Group, Soil Health School, and other programming):
15 in-house Extension staff receive announcement of new Soil Health programming with invitations to register for year one programming.
We held an inaugural meeting to outline this project and our goals. In addition to 14 in-house ASPs, we were joined by several research faculty who expressed interest in participating in future programming. We were also joined by the research farm superintendent. Our total attendance was 20 individuals.
Recruitment (Soil Health School and other programming):
2000 ASPs, Extension Agents, and farmers are reached with announcements of upcoming programming, and invitations to attend using Extension digital outreach and listservs.
This is an annual milestone. The initial programming in 2021 was determined to be a better fit for ASPs and was less appropriate for our farmer audience. Targeted invitations were shared in-house and then re-shared to ASPs. We also invited colleagues at the University of Rhode Island and the University of Connecticut.
Programming in PY2 and PY3 will be appropriate for a broader audience. In PY2 and PY3, our listservs will be utilized to reach the 2000 individuals on these lists.
Education (Soil Health Working Group):
- 5 Extension professionals (ASPs) and additional faculty and graduate students participate in 6 discussions of current Soil Health research and its application in the field and Soil Testing Lab. September, 2021.
- 5 Extension professionals (ASPs) and additional faculty and graduate students participate in 10 discussions of current Soil Health research and its application in the field and Soil Testing Lab. September, 2022.
- 5 Extension professionals (ASPs) and additional faculty and graduate students participate in 10 discussions of current Soil Health research and its application in the field and Soil Testing Lab. September, 2023.
In 2021, two research faculty, three Extension professionals, 1 outside ASP, and 7 graduate students attended 4 discussions prior to the completion of the PY1 end date. An additional seven meetings and discussions continued into PY2 as apart of this series. Discussions included the review of current soil health literature and methodologies. The motifs of discussion by this group included the following: principles of soil health, sampling and laboratory method evaluation, experimental assessment, cultural management practices, farmer adoption and perspectives, implications for climate change, and differences relative to land-use and ecosystem.
Verification (Soil Health Working Group):
- 5 UMass Extension professionals who participate in the Soil Health Working Group integrate knowledge gained into advice and services provided to 20 farmers, collectively responsible for managing a minimum of 400 acres of land. September 30, 2021
- 5 Extension ASPs report report using knowledge gained through the project in activities reaching 75 farms operating 1,500 acres. September 2022.
- 5 Extension ASPs report using knowledge gained through the project in activities reaching 100 farms operating 2,000 acres. September 2023.
We experienced some delays in PY1 (2021) establishing the formal working group. PY1 goals have been shifted to the winter of 2021-2022. Current efforts include aggregating soil health methods and resources on our UMass Extension website, with the input of members of the soil health working group.
Education (Soil Health School):
40 attendees participate in Soil Health School. Attendees hear from Soil Health experts on recent research findings and current Soil Health oriented recommendations. Two session are dedicated to improving/revamping farmer interview approaches to focus on Soil Health goals and needs. February 2022.
40 attendees participate in Soil Health School. Speakers will once again include Soil Health experts who will provide updates to resent research findings and current recommendations. One session is dedicated to discussing a plan for future work: current challenges, remaining questions, necessary resources, and goal setting. February 2023.
Planning is actively in-progress for the Soil Health School to take place in February of 2022. A virtual event is planned for 2022, and we are hopeful for hands-on learning to occur at a 2023 event.
Verification (Soil Health School):
36 Soil Health School participants demonstrate knowledge gain in pre- and post-assessments; 30 indicate intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 90 farmers. February 2022.
36 Soil Health School participants demonstrate knowledge gain in pre and post-assessments; 30 indicate intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 90 farmers February 2023
Education (other soil health programming):
60 attendees participate in a three-part workshop series focused on building a foundational knowledge of Soil Health, virtual or in-person depending on circumstances), December, 2021.
15 attendees participate in an in-field training of the USDA-NRCS Cropland in-field Soil Health assessments protocol and learn how to conduct their own empirical analysis of soil health conditions and indicators. May 2022.
15 attendees participate in a three-part workshop that includes a classroom training on identifying indicators of soil health vulnerabilities, followed by a farm visit to practice making observations, followed by a session in which small groups work together to develop and share recommendations. Completed by October 2022.
15 ASPs and Extension Agents participate in a three-part Soil Health assessment workshop. Participants are broken into small groups and are sent to 3 different farms to interview farmers, survey the land, and collect soil health samples in workshop one. Participants will be sent to a farm in their sector. In workshop two, participants work together in their groups to generate recommendations and make a presentation to share with those that went to other farms. In workshop three, groups present their visit, observations, and recommendations, to the other groups. All attendees demonstrate the skills necessary to continue to offer Soil Health minded technical assistance. May 2023
In PY1, two workshops were organized for PY2.
The first webinar was with Joseph Amsili of the Cornell Soil Health Lab, titled, "Soil Health Research and Extension Update from your Neighbors in New York". 30 individuals registered for the event and 19 attended day of; those not in attendance received a link to watch the recorded session at a later time. 17 ASPs participated in this workshop. In addition to UMass ASPs and researchers, we also received registrations from UMaine, UNH, UVM, UConn, USDA, and American Farmland Trust.
The second webinar was with Dr. Cristine Morgan of Soil Health Institute, titled, "Assessing Soil Health at Scale". 25 individuals registered for the event and 18 attended day of; those not in attendance received a link to watch the recorded session at a later time. 11 ASPs participated in this workshop. In addition to UMass ASPs and researchers, we also received registrations from UMaine, UConn, and American Farmland Trust.
Verification (other Soil Health programming):
48 participants demonstrate knowledge gain in pre and post-assessments at each of the three-part workshop series, and 30 indicate intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 90 farmers. December 2022.
12 participants who receive a survey at the end of the in-field training report increased knowledge and confidence in performing the analyses, and 10 report intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 30 farmers. Participants can indicate any questions or confusion before the subsequent three-part series begins. May 2022
15 attendees in the 3-part workshop demonstrate the skills necessary for a Soil Health minded farm visit and follow-up report, and report in post-workshop survey that they feel confident in their abilities to interpret soil health assessments and provide relevant feedback. 12 indicate intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 36 farmers October 2022
14 attendees in the 3-part workshop verify adequate confidence in offering Soil Health technical assistance; 12 indicate intention to incorporate knowledge into advice and services provided to 36 farmers. May 2023
In PY1, two workshops were organized for PY2. The first webinar was with Joseph Amsili of the Cornell Soil Health Lab, titled, "Soil Health Research and Extension Update from your Neighbors in New York".
-8 registrants reported that they currently use soil health in their work as ASPs and would like to learn more.
-6 registrants reported that they are researchers in soil-health related work and would like to know how it fits into applied work.
-3 registrants reported a primary interest in laboratory methods.
- 3 registrants reported that they do not currently use soil health principles in their work as ASPs but would like to learn more.
-9 registrants expressed a general interest in anything relating to soil health.
The second webinar was with Dr. Cristine Morgan of Soil Health Institute, titled, "Assessing Soil Health at Scale".
-8 registrants reported that they currently use soil health in their work as ASPs and would like to learn more.
-3 registrants reported that they are researchers in soil-health related work and would like to know how it fits into applied work.
-3 registrants reported a primary interest in laboratory methods.
- 1 registrant reported that they do not currently use soil health principles in their work as an ASP but would like to learn more.
-8 registrants expressed a general interest in anything relating to soil health.
All participants received an evaluation survey. Of the collected responses, 37% attended both webinars, 37% attended "Assessing Soil Health at Scale" only, and 26% attended "Soil Health Research and Extension Update from your Neighbors in New York" only. Of all responses, 81% of participants reported an increase in their knowledge or a change to their thinking about soil health. 60% of responders were ASPs, and 83% of responders reported that soil health is a primary focus for both them and their stakeholders.
In addition, we also gathered information on what resources or actions are believed to be most necessary to improve soil health. This feedback will help finetune future programming in this project. In brief, the results showed that 85% of responders believe more farmer outreach and education to be important. 75% of responders believe more labs to analyze soil samples, research-based management recommendations, and conducting more field research are important. 70% of responders believe training ASPs about soil health and how to interpret soil health tests is important. Conducting more laboratory research was considered least important, and only 30% of responders believe this to be critical to advancing soil health in MA specifically and the region at large.
Verification (all soil health programming):
In a Year 2 Impact Survey, 30 non-Extension ASP participants in all project offerings report using knowledge gained through the project in activities reaching 150 farms. 5 Extension ASPs report report using knowledge gained through the project in activities reaching 75 farms operating 1,500 acres. September 2022.
In a Year 3 Final Impact Survey, 40 non-Extension ASP participants in all project offerings report using knowledge gained through the project in activities reaching 200 farms. 5 Extension ASPs report using knowledge gained through the project in activities reaching 100 farms operating 2,000 acres. Responses from the Year 2 Impact Survey will contribute to these totals for any ASPs not participating in Year 3. September 2023.
5 factsheets and newsletter articles are produced and sent to existing listservs to reach over 2000 ASPs and farmers. Ongoing throughout, completed by September 2023.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities conducted by the project team:
|Activity||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Total|
|Curricula, factsheets or educational tools||2||2|
|Study circle / focus groups||4||7||11|
|Webinars, talks and presentations||2||2|
|Other educational activities: Working group/in-house inaugural meeting||1||1|
Beneficiaries who particpated in the project’s educational activities and events:
|Audience||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Total Individuals|
|Farmers / ranchers||0||1||0||0|
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
Additional Project Outcomes
|Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Total|
All communication related to this project references that this is a Northeast SARE funded program. When appropriate, the project number is also included.
The MA SARE State Coordinator will conduct the following activities to provide
outreach and assistance regarding SARE grant programs, projects and information
- Respond to inquiries about SARE programs and resources and direct inquiries to
the most relevant
- Disseminate informational materials about SARE grant programs, sponsored
projects, events, and resources in hard copy at meetings and events (postpandemic, or digital equivalent where possible during pandemic) as well as
making links to them accessible electronically on UMass Extension websites and
via newsletters (see below). Annual Events: Year-round (UMass twilight meetings)
- January: Northeast Organic Farming Association Winter Conference, New England
Vegetable and Berry Grower’s Association Annual Meetings
- February: Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership Annual Conference
- March: Massachusetts Dairy Association Annual Meeting, Massachusetts Urban
- August: Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference
- December: (2021 and either 2022 or 2023, depending on final program decisions)
New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference
- January: Northeast Organic Farming Association Winter Conference, New England
- Newsletters: Vegetable Notes; Healthy Fruit; IPM Berry Blast; Crop, Dairy,
Livestock and Equine Newsletter.
- Graduate Student Mailing lists for the SARE Graduate Student Grants
- Faculty Mailing lists for the SARE Novel Approaches and Research and
- Extension Educator and Farmer Mailing lists for the SARE Farmer and
- Occasional invitations to present about SARE Grants and other topics to MA
Farm Bureau, New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Association, Land
Trusts, Conservation Districts, etc.
In an effort to better reach underserved audiences, UMass Extension will provide
outreach about the SARE Professional Development Grants to organizations who work
with farm workers and underserved farmers. Most of SARE’s other grant programs are
geared toward farm owners and decision makers who are already privileged through
their access to infrastructure and land ownership. Groups for Massachusetts outreach
include: Flats Mentor Farm, All Farmers, Riquezas del Campo, and New Entry
Sustainable Farming Project incubator farmers.
Recieved information about SARE grant programs and information resouces:
|Audience||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Total|