From Classroom to the Field: Soil Health Bottom Line: Expanding Adoption of Healthy Soils Practices by Quantifying the Economic and Environmental Benefits to Growers

Final report for WPDP19-12

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2019: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2021
Host Institution Award ID: G219-20-W7504
Grant Recipient: American Farmland Trust
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Kara Heckert
American Farmland Trust
Co-Investigators:
Anelkis Royce
American Farmland Trust
Anelkis Royce
American Farmland Trust
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Project Information

Abstract:

American Farmland Trust (AFT) proposes to deliver ten train the trainer workshops in ten major agricultural regions throughout Washington, Oregon, and California. These training workshops will provide agricultural service providers (crop consultants, agronomists, nutrient management planners), and staff from Conservation Districts, NGOs, and Land Trusts with training on three technical tools created by USDA/NRCS: COMET-Farm Tool, Nutrient Tracking Tool, and Level III T Chart, to assess the economic and environmental benefits of soil health practices. Additionally, case studies will be highlighted by local farmers to outline the benefits of these practices.

As part of the workshop development, AFT will create a robust outreach plan to reach agricultural service providers throughout each region. A training workshop curriculum will be developed with additional technical speakers from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington State University, Oregon State University, California State University, University of California, Cooperative Extensions, and Conservation District staff who are experienced in using COMET-Farm Tool, Nutrient Tracking Tool, and Level III T Charts.

Select participants in the trainings will also be trained to create a short, two-page “case study” documenting the environmental and economic outcomes of soil health practices with a farmer they work with. These case studies will serve as a critical tool in providing motivation to other growers to adopt soil health practices on their own farm.  Lastly, surveys will be collected from the training participants 6-12 months after the training to evaluate the use of the assessment tools to promote the implementation of soil health practices. By utilizing these assessment tools, agricultural service professionals will be equipped with the skills to assess the potential savings or increased yield that result from healthy soils management systems which will assist in increasing the adoption of soil health practices throughout Washington, Oregon, and California.

Project Objectives:

The goal is to increase the adoption of healthy soils practices by training ag professionals who work with farmers and growers to quantify the benefits of healthy soils practices. These professionals will be equipped with the tools and skills to assess the potential savings or increased yield that result from healthy soils management systems.

This will be achieved through a series of ten training workshops in ten major agricultural regions in Washington, Oregon, and California. California regions: the Tulare basin, northern San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento River Valley, north coast, central coast, & south coast/Imperial Valley. Washington: Western and Eastern Washington. Oregon: Eastern Oregon & Willamette Valley.

November 2019–March 2020: Prepare workshop curriculum and materials, outreach plan and communications to organize and schedule training workshops. Develop 5 case studies of farmers who have adopted soil health practices for use in training workshops.

April 2020–March 2021: Conduct ten training workshops in major agricultural regions of Washington, Oregon, and California. Training workshops will include hands-on training on soil health assessment methods, working through a case study with a farmer who has adopted soil health practices.

April 2020–March 2021: Evaluate project outcomes. A post-workshop survey will be conducted immediately after each training workshop to gauge the effectiveness of the training methods and knowledge gained. A follow-up survey (6-9 months) will be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the project; attendees will be asked if they have used outcomes assessment tools with growers they work with, and how many growers have adopted or are considering adopting soil health practices as a result.

April 2020–March 2021: Work with select participants in the trainings (20 out of 250 participants) to create a two-page “case study” documenting outcomes, which will serve as a critical tool in convincing other growers to adopt soil health practices on their own farm. 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Justin Bodell (Researcher)
  • Addie Candib (Researcher)
  • Paul Lum (Researcher)
  • Jennifer Moore-Kucera (Researcher)
  • Tabitha Brown (Researcher)
  • Tom Stein (Researcher)

Education

Educational approach:

American Farmland Trust (AFT) developed soil health economic and environmental case studies as well as a complementary training workshop curriculum that shares the case study findings, provides a tutorial on how to produce case studies, and demonstrates how to use the economic and environmental analytical tools, including COMET-Planner, Nutrient Tracking Tool, and Level III T Charts. The workshop series featured diverse external technical speakers, including university researchers, cooperative extension, commodity groups, USDA, and farmers themselves to share related research and findings that complement the technical tools, support the case study findings, and further encourage adoption of soil health management practices. AFT delivered ten train the trainer workshops to provide agricultural service providers (crop consultants, agronomists, nutrient management planners), and staff from Conservation Districts, NGOs, and Land Trusts with training on three technical tools created by USDA/NRCS: COMET-Planner Tool, Nutrient Tracking Tool, and Level III T Chart, to assess the economic and environmental benefits of soil health practices. Participants in the trainings were trained to create a short, two-page “case study” documenting the environmental and economic outcomes of soil health practices with a farmer with whom they work.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Soil Health
Objective:

Address the economic, logistical, and other barriers to grower adoption of soil health practices through quantifying the economic and environmental benefits on farmland where growers have adopted soil health practices.

Description:

American Farmland Trust conducted interviews and performed assessments of the economic and environmental benefits of adopting soil health management practices on five farms in critically significant agricultural regions across three Western states: 1) Eco Terreno Wines; 2) Trio C Vineyard; 3) Gemperle Farms; 4) Jackson Family Wines; and 5) Hedges Family Estate

Eco Terreno Wines in Sonoma County, California, transitioned from utilizing conventional farming methods to adopting healthy soils practices, including cover cropping, compost application, biodynamic preparations, vermicompost tea, and reduced tillage. Eco Terreno Wines also stopped using synthetic fertilizer as a result of being able to replace it with compost and additionally stopped using insecticides and herbicides, partially as a result of increasing beneficial insects on the land through cover cropping in combination with use of biodynamic and organic methods. Eco Terreno Wines provided quantitative data related to their production costs and inputs for soil, pest, and weed management. AFT staff, utilizing NRCS Level III T-Charts and AFT’s Economic Calculator and Partial Budget Analysis, determined an economic benefit derived from Eco Terreno Wines’ adoption of healthy soils practices, improvement in soil health, reduction of chemical, fertilizer, and elimination of tillage.      

Trio C Vineyard, is a winegrape vineyard in California’s Napa Valley that transitioned from conventional farming methods to adopting soil health management practices, including cover cropping, compost application, mulching, reduced tillage, and nutrient management. Trio C Vineyard began planting cover crops of multiple species and varying bloom times in 2010, attracting beneficial insects, improving nutrient cycling, reducing weeds and dust, and decreasing soil bulk density. The vineyard also began applying compost consisting of uncomposted chicken litter manure and mushroom mycorrhizae in 2014, which has improved the vineyard soil tilth, aeration, and has increased microbial activity. These soil health practices also allowed the vineyard to reduce herbicide use by 40%, insecticide use by 50%, and has decreased reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and potash. AFT staff calculated the economic and environmental benefits gained by Trio C Vineyard through its changes in inputs and outputs as it adopted soil health practices.

Gemperle Farms, an almond orchard in Stanislaus County, California, was experiencing soil compaction and poor water infiltration on 67 acres of their land and began remedying the problem in 2016 with cover crops, compost, and new-generation micro-nutrient fertilizers. Cover cropping has increased soil biomass, microbial activity, soil organic matter content, water retention, and has improved aeration. The farm owners and operators also reported better water infiltration, beneficial insect habitat and greater bee activity, weed suppression, less dust, and earlier access to the orchards after rains. Furthermore, the cover cropping has allowed the farmers to reduce herbicide use by 46% and insecticide by 56%. Compost application, done with composted chicken manure sourced from the farm’s egg operation, has increased soil microbial activity, nutrient availability, soil moisture retention, and enhanced soil structure. The compost application has also allowed for reductions in fertilizer application and elimination of potash applications. As part of the nutrient management, the acres receive highly efficient micro-nutrient fertilizers, humic acids, and bio stimulants through foliar application.

 

Jackson Family Wines is a winegrape vineyard in Yamhill County, Oregon managed by Ken Kupperman. In 2013, when Kupperman took over management of the vineyard, the soil health challenges he faced in the unirrigated vineyard included erosion and compaction, associated with previous practices of full tillage and minimal cover. In implementing practices aligned with LIVE standards, including cover cropping as part of the vineyard floor management, Kupperman has seen greater soil stabilization, less runoff, improved nutrient availability, better overall soil health, and improved fruit-wine quality. Now as a LIVE Certified vineyard, the USDA’s COMET-Planner found a reduction in GHG and the sequestering of carbon equal to 15 metric tons CO2 equivalent per year. Kupperman’s objectives continue to be to improve soil health, minimize pesticide and fertilizer use, optimize vine balance and fruit quality and product ultra-premium wines.

 

Hedges Family Estate is a winegrape vineyard managed by James Bukovinsky in Benton County, Washington. The estate owners began implementing sustainable practices in 2009 to improve soil health, vineyard management, and winemaking and have seen and tasted the noticeable effects of the terroir on their product. When Bukovinsky began managing the vineyard in 2017, he began planting cover crop, applying compost, and reducing tillage and fertilizer. As a result, soil organic matter increased and costs of labor and pesticides decreased. Cover cropping annually in the fall and maintaining some of the grasses as a part of the vegetative cover in the vineyard continues to build organic matter and biodiversity in the soil. Locally sourced, organic certified compost, consisting of cow manure and biodynamic preparations, is applied at a rate of 5 tons per acre. After adopting these soil health practices, Bukovinsky has improved soil stability, vine vigor, water infiltration, and water holding capacity (leading to less runoff), supporting the long-term environmental and economic viability of their farm operation.

Outcomes and impacts:

For Eco Terreno Wines, the Partial Budget Analysis shows an increase in annual net returns of $69/acre or $6,339 for the vineyard due to soil health practice adoption as opposed to conventional farming practices.  Environmental and agricultural benefits include increased soil organic matter, better soil texture, greater friability and water retention, less compaction and much less dust in the air. The vineyard has less disease than before, as the vine health has improved overall, and there is better balance between the amount of fruit produced and vine canopy.  Furthermore, as a result of the improved water retention, the vineyard is using approximately 40% less water than before implementing the healthy soils practices. Furthermore, a vital benefit from implementing the practices is the quality of Eco Terreno Wines’ grapes, and wines made from these grapes.  This improvement is reflected in significantly higher prices per ton — approximately 25% more in 2018 than in 2013 ­— for the grapes purchased by wineries, and higher prices and accolades for the wines made from these grapes. 

For Trio C Vineyard, the Partial Budget Analysis shows a net annual economic gain of $2,088 per acre, or $158,688 net annual gain over 76 acres. Much of this benefit is due to both the 20% yield increase that the vineyard experienced through the adoption of soil health practices, as well as the improved fruit profile of its wine grapes to which the vineyard owner attributes 15% of the higher prices they have been able to get for their wine grapes. These practices also led to a 33% reduction in nitrogen losses and 81% reduction in sediment losses from the vineyard. In addition, the soil has greater water infiltration potential and water-holding capacity.

For Gemperle Farms, the Partial Budget Analysis shows an annual net gain of $425 per acre, or $28,475 over 67 acres, as a result of their adoption of soil health practices. This is a result of reduced input costs through reductions in fertilizer and potash, combined with increased almond yields. Gemperle Farms simultaneously achieved environmental benefits with a 48% reduction in nitrogen losses and 56% reduction in sediment losses from the farm.

For Jackson Family Wines, the Partial Budget Analysis shows a net increase in costs of $30 per acre, or $1,050 over the 35-acre study area. Although vineyard manager Ken Kupperman found an increase in costs from implementing sustainable practices, he sees the long-term value of cover crop benefits, which far outweigh the nominal costs. Furthermore, the USDA’s NTT calculated the water quality benefit due to Kupperman’s practices found a 5% reduction in N losses and a 34% reduction in sediment losses when comparing 2013 farm inputs with 2019 inputs.

For Hedges Family Estate, the Partial Budget Analysis shows an annual net improvement to their bottom line by $412 per acre, or $16,480 over the 40-acre vineyard because of healthy soils adoption. Although the transition to a 3-2-2 fertilizer, cover cropping, and compost application increased input costs to $254 per acre, cost reductions totaled $426. Combined with increased revenues netting $240 per acre, due to enhanced fruit-wine quality and higher prices attributed to soil health, the cost increases were eclipsed by the savings and net increased revenues.

Educational & Outreach Activities

12 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
10 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

62 Extension
38 NRCS
26 Nonprofit
17 Agency
19 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
40 Farmers/ranchers
254 Others

Learning Outcomes

27 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches

Project Outcomes

4 Grants received that built upon this project
16 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

AFT has completed 5 total soil health case studies across 3 Western States, including 3 in California, 1 in Oregon, and 1 in Washington, in addition to the 2 previous California-based case studies leveraged through a Natural Resources Conservation Innovation Grant (7 total), which have been used as educational tools during the 10 training workshops AFT carried out and it will continue to utilize the case studies for in Washington, Oregon, and California for agricultural professionals who will learn how to develop these case studies and subsequently do so with farmers they work with in the field. The case studies represent diverse farming practices, operations, crop systems, and regional climate and soil systems.

The 10 training workshops have been attended by 273 agricultural professionals (222 unique, non-duplicated individuals) in addition to 190 viewings of 3 recorded training videos posted on AFT’s regional soil health webpages, Farmland Information Center, and YouTube Station, for a total of 463 participants engaged in live and recorded training sessions. Two additional trainings are being edited prior to posting online after the project period. The attendees represented a diverse group of agricultural professionals, including but not limited to, NRCS, Resource Conservation Districts (RCD), university researchers and extensionists, state and federal agencies, NGOs, crop consultants, grower associations, and farmers. In the trainings, AFT staff partnered with industry representatives, including commodity groups, USDA, university researchers and extensionists, grower associations, and farmers to attract a diverse audience of agricultural professionals and present the case studies and their findings, demonstrate the methods used, and highlight relevant tools and research to support increased adoption of soil health management practices. Guest speakers included representatives from the Almond Board of California, California State University – San Luis Obispo, USDA Nutrient Tracking Tool team, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, Farm Bureau chapters, Oregon State University, a crop consulting firm, and farmers that were profiled in the case studies. The previously published 2 case studies both demonstrated substantial environmental and economic impacts as a result of farmers adopting soil health conservation practices. One of these case studies showed an economic benefit of $173,345 annual revenue increase and improvements in soil tilth, water infiltration, water holding capacity, increases in beneficial insects, and a 29% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions on an almond orchard that adopted compost application, mulching from orchard prunings, cover crops, and nutrient management. The other case study also profiled an almond orchard and showed a $76,155 annual revenue increase, a 98% reduction in nitrogen losses from the soil, a 16% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions, as well as increases in soil organic matter, microbial activity, water holding capacity, and beneficial insects through the adoption of nutrient management practices, compost application, mulching from orchard prunings, and conservation cover. Likewise, similar benefits were realized as shown through the 5 case studies already developed through this project, as described above. Case studies, workshop recordings, and additional reference and training materials can be found at the newly launched AFT in California’s Soil Health Bottom Line program webpage: https://farmland.org/project/soil-health-bottom-line-in-california/ and AFT in the Pacific Northwest’s Farmers Combat Climate Change program webpage (https://farmland.org/project/farmers-combat-climate-change-in-the-pacific-northwest/) as well as the longstanding Farmland Information Center (https://farmlandinfo.org/publications/soil-health-farmer-profiles/), which is a clearinghouse for information about farmland protection and stewardship, supporting through a partnership between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust, authorized by the federal Farmland Protection Policy Act. AFT has engaged a total of 463 agricultural professionals, including 273 participants (222 unique, non-duplicated individuals) in the live trainings and 190 in recorded trainings (unknown duplications), in developing soil health case studies using COMET-Planner, Nutrient Tracking Tool, and Level III T Charts.

Additional Outcomes:

Consistently, participants have appreciated the case study composition, where AFT packages a relatable farmer story with economic and environmental analyses of on-farm soil health management practices, in a simple two-page format to extend with farmers and agricultural professionals. The economic and environmental analytical tools used were by-design simple and easy to use, which has been appreciated by participants and enhance scalability. The economic analysis, in particular, has been lauded as a common missing element in other studies that is particularly relevant in encouraging farmer adoption of soil health management practices.

Through the workshops, AFT has developed relationships with many significant partners that are keen to develop their own case studies based on observations with AFT’s case studies and methods used. Specifically, University of California’s (UC) statewide Climate-Smart Agriculture Community Educator team is keen on adopting the methods and developing 10-20 case studies in the next two years on tree crops, vegetables, and livestock systems after participating in the workshops and subsequent meetings with AFT. University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Regenerative Vines Working Group, and UC Riverside plan to develop case studies on sustainable agriculture practices. Mendocino Resource Conservation District (RCD) plans to incorporate the economic and environmental analyses with their carbon farming plans that will be published in a similar case study format. These case studies developed by trained participants will not be completed within the program period, but AFT will continue to work with these entities beyond the program period through other funding and will be pursuing new funding in partnership with them.

As a result of this project demonstrating the industry-related value of the case studies and trainings, AFT secured a grant from the Almond Board of California, a project partner, to further train their staff to conduct soil health economic and environmental case studies to specifically measure and demonstrate the impacts of different soil health management practices in almond orchards as well as develop a new case study methodology, modeled after this approach, to analyze the impacts of irrigation efficiency practices.

Success stories:

The Eco Terreno Wines farmer and owner states, “The changes we made are a long-term investment in the land.” He realizes that adopting all of the healthy soil practices may not be easy for many producers, but he feels the practices were definitely worthwhile for his vineyards and business. He thinks that more grape growers will eventually implement healthy soils methods, as well as other organic and biodynamic approaches, when they, and the wineries, realize the multiple advantages of the practices.

Trio C Vineyard farmer and owner also echoed the sentiment that adoption of healthy soil practices may not be an easy choice for many farmers due to financial risks but still serves as a successful example of these practices paying dividends, stating that she and her family, “have learned that the costs for regenerative practices pay off in dynamic soils, which lead to better vine health, grape quality, grape demand, and higher prices.”

A UC Cooperative Extension specialist in climate-smart agriculture from the San Joaquin Valley, California stated, “Throughout our past year working with growers across the state, we have realized that ​we lack good economic cost/benefit data for ​many soil health practices ​in California. Farmers really need this data to consider more widespread adoption. Our group is planning to do a series of economic case studies like the ones you have done here in California, and ​we’d love to talk to you about it and get your advice.”

A soils specialist from a RCD in Northern California stated, “I listened in on one of your recent webinars about the soil health case studies. It is exciting to have some examples of economic benefits to pair with the environmental benefits when speaking with growers about implementing climate beneficial practices. We have quite a few wine grape growers up in the North Coast, so I was thrilled when you mentioned that you are working on some case studies for wine grape growers.”

Recommendations:

It is overly ambitious to expect other entities to carry out work they are trained in within the grant period unless they themselves have funding to do so. Acquiring this funding can take significant time for many entities. Therefore, project impacts are likely to extend beyond the three-year grant period. Through this project, AFT secured deeper partnerships with both UCANR and Almond Board of California, who expressed new commitments to produce 15-25 case studies modelled after AFT’s case study. These case studies were not completed during the project period, but will be completed within the subsequent year on a variety of cropping systems across diverse agricultural regions of California.

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.