Advancing Comprehensive, Peer-to-Peer Soil Health Training across Virginia

Progress report for SPDP22-11

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2022: $74,903.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2025
Grant Recipients: Virginia Tech; Virginia State University
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Rory Maguire
Virginia Tech
William Crutchfield
Virginia State University
Mary Sketch
Virginia Tech
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Project Information


Regenerative agricultural systems focused on soil health strengthen the vitality and resilience of individual farms, the agricultural economy, and our natural environment. The Virginia Soil Health Coalition is a network of diverse organizational partners working to accelerate the adoption of soil health. The Coalition recently hired a soil health coordinator and developed a strategic plan, steering committee, farmer mentoring network and working groups. The Coalition has become aware over the last year of a gap in existing training efforts and the growing desire from ASPs for soil health training that will educate and inspire them to in-turn deliver the material to farmers. To better serve Virginia farmers, the Coalition is now positioned to leverage these investments and further build capacity by providing training for ASPs on the core principles and priorities of soil health. 

To address the growing need for consistent, inclusive soil health training identified by the Virginia Soil Health Coalition, the proposed project will develop and implement a suite of peer-to-peer soil health educational materials for ASPs. The Coalition is in a strategic position to advance this programming across agencies and organizations. The proposed activities will complement the broader soil health education and outreach strategy spearheaded by the Coalition. 

Training materials will be accessible by and applicable to diverse professionals and center on the four principles of soil health as emphasized by the Coalition’s 4 The Soil Awareness Initiative: 1) keep soil covered; 2) minimize soil disturbance; 3) maximize living roots; 4) energize with diversity. 

Project Objectives:

Project objectives were identified as needs by Virginia Soil Health Coalition partners. The project will target a network of agricultural service providers (ASPs) across the state, including but not limited to staff of the soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Virginia Cooperative Extension (Virginia State University and Virginia Tech) as well as mentor farmers. Targeting a broad network of ASPs will lead to a greater diversity of producers and landscapes reached. The professional development programming specifically seeks to build capacity and education among historically underserved agricultural communities and vulnerable populations by partnering closely with Virginia State University and their Small Farm Outreach Program to fully center diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in training materials. 


Behavior-based project objectives: 

  • Develop a far-reaching soil health knowledge base within Virginia. The project will target a broad group of agricultural service providers through peer-to-peer soil health trainings and outreach, building a wide network of soil health advocates across Virginia. The mixed-methods approach of the project, along with the diverse group of collaborators leading outreach and engagement will allow us to be more inclusive and reach a wider, more diverse network of ASPs. This objective will be achieved through a combination of face-to-face and on-farm training events and virtual/online educational materials and networking opportunities. The evergreen nature of many of the training materials will allow for continued, long-term expansion of the knowledge base. 
  • Inspire agricultural service providers. The trainings and related materials aim to leave ASPs inspired and empowered to deliver soil health technical assistance on-the-ground. This objective will be achieved through the creation of relatable, encouraging soil health case studies and demonstrations that feature Virginia farmers and practitioners. Additionally, the peer-to-peer nature of the training will build camaraderie among participants and trainers. 
  • Enhance collaborative coordination and communication among partners. Collaboration and coordination are at the core of the Virginia Soil Health Coalition’s vision and mission. By engaging diverse partners in the leadership and implementation of the training, the project will increase the coordination and collaboration across the state. Field days and workshops will also provide the opportunity for networking between training participants and their respective organizations and affiliations.
  • Increase consistency of and coordination around soil health messaging. Soil health is a broad topic which can mean many different things to different people. By centering the training on the four principles and five priorities of soil health, the project will provide a consistent, coordinated soil health message that is aligned with the broader outreach and educational efforts of the Virginia Soil Health Coalition. 


The realization of these objectives will result in the following outcomes:

  • Establishment of a widespread, diverse network of Virginia soil health champions.
  • Development of a series of evergreen soil health educational materials that provide a consistent and coordinated message around the principles and priorities of soil health.
  • Documentation and curating of on-farm soil health case studies and demonstrations.
  • Increased outreach capacity of the Virginia Soil Health Coalition. 
  • Increased delivery of on-the-ground technical assistance grounded in soil health-building principles and priorities. 


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Educational approach:

The project has taken a peer-to-peer, hands-on approach to provide technical training and increase awareness related to soil health for agricultural service providers (ASPs) across Virginia. The mixed-methods approach as well as the diverse group of collaborators leading outreach, engagement, and instruction has allowed us to be more inclusive and reach a wider, more diverse network of ASPs. Phase 1 of the project has focused on in-person trainings and field days. As part of phase 1, the first set of trainings focused on soil health comparison and live demonstration and the second set on learning directly from soil health champion farmers. In phase 2, these trainings will be supplemented by a series of webinars, videos, and circulation of other soil health resources. These include on-farm field days and other case study resources.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Hands-On Soil Health Dig & Demo Days

To increase ASPs understanding of the core soil science and health principles and increase their comfort in applying this knowledge in work with farmers and clients


Series of 8 full-day field trainings during the fall of 2022. The trainings were led by soil scientists and the state cropland agronomist for VA NRCS and included in-field soil comparisons and live demonstrations (e.g. slake test, infiltration demonstration, etc.) on topics including soil organic matter management, soil aggregation, and inherent soil properties, and soil evaluation among others. 

Outcomes and impacts:

In total we trained 189 ASPs including staff from NRCS, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, among others. Throughout the trainings, we also captured hours of video footage that will be used to develop follow-up educational resources for service providers. Details from the post-training survey are outlined in more detailed in the subsequent sections of the report.

Soil Health Show & Tell Farm Visits

To learn about how soil health champion farmers across Virginia are implementing soil health on their operation, what challenges and opportunities they are realizing, and how ASPs can most effectively work with producers to implement holistic soil health systems.


Series of 3 on-farm field days led by innovative, soil health champion farmers with a focus on diversified, regenerative production during the summer of 2023. The field days were farmer led and provided real-world case studies on soil health management. Participation included a total of 65 ASPs during 2 field days to-date with 35 ASPs registered for the third field day.

Outcomes and impacts:

Participation included a total of 65 ASPs during 2 field days to-date with 35 ASPs registered for the third field day. As the third field day has not taken place yet, we are awaiting post-training survey results. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

8 On-farm demonstrations
11 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

34 Extension
11 Researchers
5 Nonprofit
22 Agency
71 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
4 Farmers/ranchers
11 Others

Learning Outcomes

175 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
178 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

To date, we have implemented a series of 8 in-person Dig & Demo Trainings for nearly 200 agricultural service providers. These trainings were phase 1 of the series of training opportunities and focused on building a foundation of soil health knowledge.


A post-training survey demonstrated the high-level of impact of the trainings. Following the training, 92% of respondents reported being somewhat or very comfortable having a conversation with a farmer or client on the topics covered (e.g. soil aggregation, soil organic matter management, soil evaluation, inherent soil properties, etc.). Additionally, 90% of the respondents reported that after the training they were somewhat or very likely to use some of the practices and approaches taught. Specifically, 88% of respondents reported being somewhat or very likely to use hands on demos and creative communication strategies with farmers and clients after the training. One participant from the Dig & Demo Trainings described, “I feel much more comfortable talking with my clientele about soil health.” “Excellent training! I learned a lot and have already put some of these methods into practice in my own programming.”  Many participants commented on the impact of the hands-on demonstrations and their likelihood to use these demonstrations and approaches in their own outreach to farmers with 95% of respondents rating the content and topics of the training as very relevant and interesting. Another goal of the trainings was to promote networking and regional team building. 98% of respondents thought this goal was achieved.


Following the Dig & Demo days, we organized a series of farmer-led Soil Health Show & Tell Farm Visits to learn about how soil health champion farmers across Virginia are implementing soil health on their operation, what challenges and opportunities they are realizing, and how you can most effectively work with producers to implement holistic soil health systems. As we have only completed 2 of 3 field days, we are still collecting survey data on the impact of the trainings. However informal feedback from the events has been very positive with participants noting new innovative methods and approaches they are learning from the farmers that they plan to integrate into their work/outreach.


We have also begun planning for phase 2 of the project which will include webinars, videos, and additional digital resource creation and outreach. We hope that this mixed-method approach will allow a diversity of providers to gain knowledge through various outlets over the course of the project. Subcontractor Virginia State University is working with a farmer who has planted two different summer cover (green manure) crops in succession planting in easy to tour areas on his farm. He has farm ours he is planning with dates yet to be determined 

7,000 Farmers reached through participant's programs
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.