From the ground up: Educating Cooperative Extension and NRCS about agricultural technologies to enhance soil health

Progress report for WPDP22-019

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2022: $70,723.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2025
Host Institution Award ID: G391-22-W9214
Grant Recipient: University of Arizona
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Principal Investigator:
Elise Gornish
University of Arizona
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Project Information


Growing evidence shows that enhancing soil health can provide a variety of environmental and economic services to managers on working landscapes. However, widespread integration of practices that enhance soil health in rangeland systems is slow, and in some cases, non-existent. Education and encouragement for adoption of these approaches are critical for the wellbeing and economic stability of producers, and for the health of the people who depend on them. In order for producers to employ novel strategies to enhance soil health, they need information about basic soil science, strategies to enhance soil health, and evidence demonstrating the economic or environmental benefits of adopting or modifying existing agricultural techniques in order to enhance carbon sequestration. This type of information is typically accessed through both Cooperative Extension (CE) and the NRCS. In order to provide CE and NRCS with the resources needed to inform producers about soil health and agricultural techniques that involve direct or indirect enhancement of soil health, we deployed workshops that covered a variety of topics related to soil science; soil health in terms of markets and policy; and agricultural approaches for increasing soil health that are scientifically sound and logistically and financially feasible. The training enabled CE and NRCS to effectively educate clientele on agricultural technologies to enhance soil health and agricultural productivity. We also created a webinar that can be used for training by CE and NRCS personnel across the Southwest. Sustainable cultivation, maintenance, and conservation of soil health not only improves soil conditions, but also enhances the conditions for plant and wildlife habitat. Having access to CE and NRCS personnel who are knowledgeable about the design and implementation of approaches that enhance soil health will provide producers with the tools they need to enhance their quality of life.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Provide training for UACE and the NRCS on topics of stable soil carbon, soil health, related agriculture markets and policy, and agricultural technologies to enhance soil health. We initially deployed four workshops across two years in the state of Arizona (and have recently received a one year no cost extension in order to deploy a few more, due to stakeholder interest).  Workshop speakers provided a comprehensive package of soil health information, from basic science overviews to methods for assessing soil health across rangeland systems to techniques for mitigating soil degradation and enhancing soil health. We a majority of the CE and NRCS personnel in AZ working in relevant areas (i.e. livestock, rangelands, natural resources, weeds, climate change, master gardeners) participated in our workshops. The broad geographic range of the workshops  encouraged attendance by CE and NRCS personnel. Training a large breadth of CE and NRCS staff promotes/encourages widespread transfer of knowledge to producers, in addition to ensuring a long-standing discussion about drought-relevant agricultural practices.

Objective 2: Develop a webinar. Training of CE and NRCS in the topics of soil health and agricultural approaches to maintain and enhance soil health is necessary to address increasing interests of Southwestern rangeland stakeholders. To address this need, we created a webinar that includes workshop presentations for the free use by CE and NRCS personnel nationwide. The webinar is available in the Gornish Lab YouTube channel.


We deployed four workshops; time and locations were based on interest/input from NRCS and conservation groups. Workshops occurred: March 7 (Phoenix), March 8 (Flagstaff), March 9 (Tucson), March 13 (Solomon), all in 2023.


We will stratify workshops across ranching regions in Arizona9. The four workshops will be located at UArizona facilities and include: Yuma Agricultural Center (Yuma, Western Desert Region); Maricopa Agricultural Center (Maricopa, Central Mountain Region); V Bar V Ranch (Rimrock, Plateau Region); and the Campus Agricultural Center (Tucson, Southeastern Region).

Each workshop will include one full day of presentations by confirmed speakers (see letters of support). Speakers were chosen based on: (1) their involvement, interest and experience with soil health research; (2) their understanding of soil health needs on rangeland systems; and (3) their commitment to soil health outreach. The tentative agenda includes:

8:00 – 8:30
Check in and coffee

8:30 – 8:40
Welcome remarks, pre workshop survey

8:40 – 9:20
Soil health: Background and fundamentals, Jeffrey Silvertooth, University of Arizona

9:20 – 10:00
Applied soil health for arid plants, Robert Masson, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension

10:00 – 10:40
Soil health and semi-arid rangelands: Insights from long-term grazing experiments, Justin Derner, USDA ARS

10:40 – 11:20
Enhancing soil function with conservation management in arid regions, Katie Lewis, Texas Tech University

11:20 – 12:00
Managing grazinglands for multiple ecosystem services and soil health goals, D.J. Eastburn, University of California, Davis

12:00 – 1:30

1:30 – 2:10
Native grass cropping for soil health, Mark Haberstich, The Nature Conservancy

2:10 – 2:50
Small scale erosion control to infiltrate water and support range health, Cie’na Schlaefli, Tohono O’odham Nation

2:50 – 3:30
Wrap up discussion and post workshop survey

All workshop logistics, including communicating with all workshop speakers; organizing travel for speakers; coordinating workshop materials; coordinating workshop food and beverages; recording all workshops; publicizing workshop; and collecting registration will be the responsibility of a program coordinator funded by this grant.

Summer 2022
Planning meeting with project partners

Summer – Fall 2022
Identify coordinator, identify workshop dates based on speaker availability, initiate contact with IT personnel for webinar development

Winter 2022
Confirm travel for all speakers, publicize workshops, develop an online portal for materials

Spring 2023
Publicize workshops, workshops 1+2 occur, feedback solicited from attendees

Summer 2023
Publicize workshops, workshops 3+4 occur, feedback solicited from attendees, PIs to attend the Association of Natural Resources Extension Professionals Conference

Fall 2023
Webinar produced, formal surveys of workshop participants, PIs to attend the Arizona Agricultural Extension Association annual meeting

Winter 2023
Webinar materials reviewed, PIs to attend the Soil Science Society of America Annual Meeting

Spring 2024
Write summary reports and submit to local and regional sources, publicize webinars


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  • Dr. Joseph Blankinship (Educator and Researcher)


Educational approach:

Four distinct workshops are scheduled for 2023, including march 7 (phoenix), march 8 (flagstaff), march 9 (tucson) and march 13 (safford).

We expect approximately 50 participants from NRCS, CE and other trainers to attend the workshops.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Workshop development

Deploy 4 workshops this spring around the state of Arizona which will focus on rangeland soil health principles and management.


Currently planning 4 workshops on soil health with similar agendas: March 8 (Phoenix, AZ); March 9 (Flagstaff, AZ), March 10 (Tucson AZ), March 13 (Safford Arizona). Locations are confirmed and publicity has been sent out. Registrations are starting to pour in from all types of stakeholders - mostly 'trainers' (e.g. Cooperative Extension, NRCS, and county agencies) but also including others such as Master Gardeners and USGS.

Outcomes and impacts:

Knowledge transfer of critical soil health biology, ecology and management to an expected 150 individuals who will then train others with this knowledge.

Soil health webinar development

Create an freely accessible online webinar on soil health


Recordings of the workshops will be coalesced into an online, freely accessible webinar for individuals outside of the workshop region to access.

Outcomes and impacts:

Wider range of knowledge transfer of soil health biology, ecology and management of rangeland systems.

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
4 Workshop field days

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

We deployed four all day, in person workshops in Spring 2023 (in Tucson, Solomon, Phoenix and Flagstaff, all in Arizona). Although attendance differed in each location, we had over 270 attendees in total.  In three locations, we had a long waiting list of individuals who wanted to attend the workshop but could not due to space issues. We surveyed workshop attendees and 100% noted that they 'learned something new' at the workshop. Over 80% noted that they would 'definitely' or 'very likely' use knowledge gained in the workshop when creating new soil health management strategies on their own farm or ranch.

We also surveyed attendees about their general perspectives in soil health. One hundred and fifteen individuals responded to the paper survey (4 pages, IRB approved). We have summarized this information and published it in a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension document (uploaded into the products section). Survey results highlighted important research and outreach needs of local stakeholders. As a result, we are leveraging these results as preliminary results to be included in larger grant proposal submissions, such as USDA-NIFA.

190 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
Additional Outcomes:

Due to the long waitlist of our workshops (and some money saving on our part!) we requested and secured a one year no cost extension so that we could increase the total number of workshops. We plan to deploy workshops in two past locations (Flagstaff and Phoenix had the highest waitlist) as well as in several new locations (possibly Patagonia, AZ and Rodeo, NM [although Rodeo is not in Arizona, a very important ranching group, the Malpai Borderlands Group, operates on both sides of the border and Rodeo is the only location in their region with a space large enough to host a workshop]).

Success stories:

PI Gornish received a bunch of 'fan mail' after each workshop. Attendees really enjoyed the workshops and appreciated the coffee and lunch (not always provided at workshops as its hard to secure funding for food). In some cases, our project team was able to partner with an industry supporter that provided free hand outs to attendees (e.g. in Flagstaff a local fertilizer company provided hats and in Phoenix a solar company provided pens and mini notebooks). These hand outs were very much appreciated by attendees.

Information Products

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.