A team of 30 Oregon farmers and University faculty members developed the Oregon soil quality assessment card designed to assist farmers to systematically evaluate the physical and biological properties of soil that are affected by tillage, irrigation, cover crops and other soil management practices. The card is meant to compliment the soil chemical fertility tests that are commonly used by Oregon farmers. Soil Quality Assessment Cards were also developed in 14 other states.
Over a period of three years, 800 sets of soil assessment cards and the soil quality card guides were distributed to Oregon farmers by mail and two soil quality field days, and to agricultural professionals at a soil quality workshops. To assess the usage and the value of the Oregon soil quality assessment card, a regional mail-out survey of Oregon farmers and a national phone survey of agricultural professionals involved in the development of soil quality assessment cards were conducted in 2001 and 2002. The results of both surveys were similar. The soil quality assessment cards were useful as educational and teaching tools. Very few farmers used the cards on specific fields to make quantitative assessments of soil quality. Adoption by farmers of the soil quality assessment cards as long term record keeping tools was essentially zero percent. There was great reluctance among farmers to use the soil quality assessment cards for record keeping purposes because they were not convinced that maintaining soil quality records would lead to better farming practices, healthier soils, and greater farm profits. The most important use of the soil quality cards is an educational tool to introduce and teach the concepts of soil quality. The soil quality cards should be redesigned to be used solely as educational tools for use in field days and workshops, and not as record keeping tools.
This objectives of this study were to: (1) measure the level of adoption of the SQA-Card and the impacts it made on card users; (2) facilitate farmers’ learning about soil quality and enhance their capacity to make sustainable soil management decisions; and (3) improve the design of current SQA-Cards and refine the participatory process to develop future soil quality assessment tools.
The development of the Wisconsin Soil Health Card and the Soil Health Card initiative by the USDA-NRCS Soil Quality Institute have prompted the development of local soil quality/soil health assessment cards (SQA-Cards) in many states of the US. The cards are “do-it yourself tools” that farmers in a particular region use to score farmer-selected soil quality indicators guided by farmer-selected descriptive terms. It is expected that the assessment will create awareness of soil quality, stimulate farmers to communicate problems to agricultural support agencies, and ultimately encourage sustainable soil management. Currently, there is no process in place to monitor the effectiveness of these cards. Unanswered questions include: Are farmers using the cards? Does the use of the cards affect farmers’ awareness and attitudes regarding soil quality? Do farmers seek advice of agricultural support professional as a result of using the card? and Does the card stimulate them to use more sustainable soil management practices? Answers to these questions are needed to improve the design of current cards, refine the development of future soil quality assessment tools, and gain insights into alternative strategies that will help farmers manage their soil for long-term productivity. To answer these questions, we conducted a regional mail out survey of farmers in Oregon and a national phone survey of agricultural professionals involved in the development and distribution of soil quality assessment cards in their own states.
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The Oregon version of a soil quality assessment card was published by Oregon State University published as OSU Extension EM 8711 “The Willamette Valley Soil Quality Assessment Card” and EM 8710 “Soil Quality Card Guide”. Copies of the Oregon Soil Quality Assessment Cards and accompanying guides were mailed to over 800 farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The cards were also handed out and the procedures were demonstrated at two grower field days and one soil quality workshop for agricultural professionals.
A soil quality survey tool was developed with assistance from the Oregon State University Survey Research Center. A stratified randomly selected sample of 200 farmers was chosen randomly by zip code from each of the major agricultural production areas of the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. These farmers received in the mail a Soil Quality Card Survey plus a self addressed stamped envelope (Survey tool available upon request).
Twenty one academic or agency professionals from Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania were interviewed by phone (Phone survey questionnaire available upon request). Fourteen of the interviewees were active in developing soil quality assessment cards in their states. Seven of the interviewees had attended a soil quality assessment card training sponsored by the USDA Soil Quality Institute.
Field days and the soil quality workshops were well attended and the soil quality cards were enthusiastically received by participants. The soil quality assessment cards were very useful as teaching tools for both growers and agricultural professionals. They were an excellent means of providing hands-on activities at fields days and workshops that complimented lecture and demonstration.
Ten percent of the farmers who received the mail out soil quality survey (20/200) responded. Fifty percent (10/20) of the respondents had been farming for over 20 years and seventy five percent (15/20) were full time farmers. Fifty percent of the respondents (10/20) had completed college degrees. Most of the respondents produced commercial vegetables (15/20) and grass seed in rotation. Smaller amounts of small grains, tree fruits, small fruits, ornamentals, and pasture were also reports. The twenty respondents farmed a total of 5622 acres. Approximately fifty percent of these acres were owned while fifty percent were leased. Eighty five percent (17/20) of the respondents had not participated in USDA soil conservation programs.
Eighty five percent (17/20) of the tillage operations performed on these farms is performed by either the farmer or other family members. Sixty five percent of the respondents (13/20) reported that they use less tillage than in the past. Eighty five percent of the respondents reported that they did not use cover crops on their farms. Seventy five percent of the respondents (15/20) reported that the quality of their seed beds in terms of drainage, cloddyness, seedling emergence, and yield had either improved or remained the same over the past decade. The most common methods for assessing soil quality identified by the respondents were 1) examining the soil by hand, 2) observing the soil during tillage operations, 3) observing soil drainage patterns, and 4) crop yields.
When asked to define soil quality, sixty five percent (13/20) of the respondents defined soil quality as “soil that has good physical properties and soil that produces good crop yields.” Seventy five percent (15/20) of the respondents conduct chemical fertility tests and occasionally assess compaction, workability, and water infiltration. Fifty percent of the respondents (10/20) assess earthworm numbers and check for symphylans. Respondents reported that they had the knowledge and skills necessary to assess soil quality but they were constrained by time and money. Forty percent of the respondents (8/20) were favorably impressed by the Soil Quality Assessment Card. None of the Oregon farmers who responded to the mail out survey (0/20) had ever used it in the field nor had used it for record keeping on a specific field.
Twenty one individuals in 14 states responded to phone interviews. Ten of the states had printed and distributed several hundred to several thousand copies of their SQAC mainly through NRCS Field Offices, field days, and workshops. In most cases, the publications were distributed free of charge mainly to farmers, NRCS and Extension personnel, teachers and crop advisors. Other groups receiving cards included Master Gardeners, Community Gardens, agribusinesses and students.
NRCS and Extension personnel are using soil cards for educational purposes and raising awareness of soil quality. Many felt that SQA cards facilitated better communication between the farmers and soil scientists. Distribution of soil quality assessment cards prompted many farmers to contact agricultural professionals and ask questions about soil quality.
As of the time of this study, one of the 15 states (Oregon) that developed and distributed soil quality assessment cards had conducted a follow up study to determine if and how farmers were using the soil quality cards. In phone interviews, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania reported that between 1% and 25% of the farmers that received SQA cards actually used them in their fields. Massachusetts, Montana, Georgia reported that 60 to 90% of the farmers that have received SQA cards have at least read them. Two states believe that their soil cards were used for record keeping by farmers but they have not conducted formal studies.
In most states, the SQA cards were designed to require more than one visit to the field at different times of the year. This is was an unrealistic expectation of farmers. Most states chose to go for simplicity in card design as a way of making the SQA cards accessible to farmers. The cards were sometimes criticized for being too simple and not sufficiently quantitative (too subjective). As a result, they did not appear to be useful to farmers for making soil management decisions. There was great effort made in most states to keep the SQA card “short and sweet.” This required an accompanying booklet to discuss the card, the procedures, and the concepts. expanding the size of the card itself.
The development, demonstration, and distribution of the Willamette Valley Soil Assessment Card has prompted increased awareness, discussion, and learning about soil quality among farmers and agricultural professionals. The distribution of the soil quality survey itself has prompted a lot of learning about soil quality. The concept of a farmer developed assessment tool for soil quality management and record keeping failed. But a great deal of learning occurred during the process. We believe that farmers, at least in Oregon, are more aware and sensitive to the importance of the physical and biological aspects of soil quality as a result of this project. . Forty percent of the respondents (8/20) to the mail out survey were favorably impressed by the Soil Quality Assessment Card and seventy five percent of the respondents (15/20) reported that the quality of their seed beds in terms of drainage, cloddy ness, seedling emergence, and yield had either improved or remained the same over the past decade. They are paying attention to soil quality.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Oregon State University Extension
EM 8711 “The Willamette Valley Soil Quality Assessment Card”
EM 8710 “Soil Quality Card Guide”
No economic analysis was conducted. Increased awareness and sensitivity about the impact of management practices (tillage, irrigation, crop residue and cover crop management) on soil physical and biological properties may translate into healthier crops and more consistent yields. The reluctance on the part of farmers to use the soil quality assessment cards may be due, in part, to the absence of economic data relating soil quality and farm profitability.
Approximately 800 farmers have received copies of the soil assessment cards and the soil quality assessment guide. Approximately 80 farmers participated in three soil quality field days where they were given hands-on experience in using the assessment tool. Approximately 35 agricultural professionals attended a half day workshop on soil quality.
Our survey data and personal observations suggest that although farmers designed the soil quality assessment card, very few Oregon farmers use the assessment cards for long term record keeping or short term soil management decisions.
Areas needing additional study
The most important and successful use of the Oregon Soil Quality Assessment Card was as an educational tool to introduce and teach the concepts of soil quality. The Oregon SQA card should be redesigned solely as educational tools for use in field days and workshops, and not as record keeping tools. The Oregon SQA card and accompanying guide should be tested as a teaching tool for urban gardeners (OSU Master Gardener Program).
Oregon Soil Quality Assessment Card and the SQA cards developed in other states were created with farmer input, by farmers, using language farmers were comfortable with. It is puzzling that with so much farmer input, the cards have not been well received as management tools by farmers. Why did the collaborative process used in the development of the SQA cards fail to identify the strengths of the SQA cards as a teaching tool and the weakness of the SQA cards as a farm management tool?