Sustainable Soils

Final Report for YENC08-005

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2008: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Manager:
Marcus Lewton
South Heart School/North Dakota Association of Ag
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Project Information


As an agriculture educator I try to implement critical thinking skills into all my lesson plans. This exercise alone provides students with many opportunities to think about the sustainability of anything related to agriculture. Whether it is types of construction, efficiency of small engines, varieties of feed rations, or the feasibility of tomato gardening students have the opportunity to look at the sustainability of a certain agricultural practice. I do teach lessons that are strictly related to sustainable agriculture such as soil health, conservation practices, and sustainable energy to name just a few.

1. Provide North Dakota & Minnesota Agricultural Educators with a soil health kit.
2. Provide training in soil health for North Dakota & Minnesota Agricultural Educators.

January of 2009 Frank Kutka (North Dakota State SARE Coordinator) and I came up with a plan to offer a workshop on sustainable agriculture for local agriculture teachers. Within the workshop were two presentations on soil health which were very well received by the agriculture teachers. I decided to write a grant to build kits that demonstrated the different techniques used to determine soil health.

Frank Kutka provided me with contacts of several soil professionals in the area. I was able to contact numerous people who helped me with additional ideas for the box. A majority of the ideas came from Dr. Kris Nichols a soil scientist at the USDA in Mandan, North Dakota. Dr. Nichols constructed a soil laboratory manual with numerous different soil health activities outlined and described. Since the presentations on soil health, the manual has been posted on the National FFA website providing access to tens of thousands of teachers and millions of students.

My first step was to contact professionals at the North Dakota Career and Technical Education Center (CTE). They were able place me on the presenter list for The August 2009 CTE workshops held in Bismarck, North Dakota.  I then contacted the Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators (MAAE). They informed me it was too late to be a presenter for the July 2009 Conference, but indicated it may fit into the offerings in the January 2010 Technical Education Conference.

I began by gathering all the materials for the North Dakota conference. Some of the materials I was able to get donated; such as the aluminum pipe for the infiltration tests (most expensive material). The 9th grade agriculture class in Dickinson also built and supplied the boxes for the kits. Instead of cardboard paper boxes they built sturdy boxes out of pine and OSB.

After gathering the materials I built the soil health kits with assistance from South Heart FFA students. I waited, but eventually built the soil health kits for the Minnesota teachers at a later date with the assistance of FFA members. I chose to wait as I was unsure if I would be provided the opportunity to present in Minnesota.

In August Dr. Nichols and I presented for seventy-two agriculture teachers in North Dakota at the CTE conference. Additional boxes were provided for North Dakota Agriculture teachers that could not be present for a combined total of eighty.  

In January I traveled to St. Cloud Minnesota to present to fifty-three Minnesota agriculture teachers. I present two sessions, one on the night of January 15th and the other the following morning. I left seven additional boxes with instructors who could not participate. A total of sixty kits were supplied to Minnesota agriculture teachers. The workshops at both locations were very well received.

PEOPLE (Editor's Note: see attached PEOPLE chart for an easier-to-read version of the following information.)
Individual, Affiliation, Assistance
Dr. Kris Nichols, USDA, Designed and organized soil health labs; Presented labs to North Dakota agriculture instructors
Dr. Frank Kutka Dickinson, Research and Extension Service, Provided me with contacts and resources
Toby Stroh, Dickinson State University, Provided soil health labs; Provided contacts for free aluminum irrigation tubing
Jay Schnell, Independent Farmer, Provided Aluminum irrigation tubing for infiltration test (donated)
Bob Klein, NRCS, Provided pamphlet for infiltration test
Dr. John Sticka, Soil Conservation District, Provided soil health demonstration & brochures (Soil Energy Model)
Mick Lewton, West Plains Incorporated, Donated clear tubing for soil aggregate stability test.
South Heart FFA, South Heart School, Assisted in construction of soil health kits
Local school districts, Provided cardboard boxes for MN soil health kits
Dickinson FFA, Dickinson Public Schools, Constructed wooden boxes and donated for ND soil health kits
Steve Zimmerman, North Dakota FFA, Help secure presentation time for agriculture instructors in ND
Tom Appel, Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators, Help secure presentation time for agriculture instructors in MN
Multiple Businesses in Dickinson, Donated boxes for the MN kits
North Dakota Career Technical Education, Paid for mileage to North Dakota CTE Conference
Marcus Lewton, South Heart School, Oversaw the grant

The audience was secondary agriculture teachers in North Dakota and Minnesota. These agriculture teachers were each given a soil health kit that provided lab activities to utilize in their classrooms. The lab activities demonstrated how healthy soils and non-healthy soils behave. One hundred and forty soil health kits were built and distributed. The recipients were also trained in how to use the soil health kits.  

The soil health kits are sustainable because the only material that needs to be replaced is the soil. The students are asked to bring in different soil samples. This makes the kit easy to use each year.  It is difficult to measure achievement because the soil health kits are more than just a product they are an idea. The idea was to teach agriculture teachers about soil health and provide them with lab activities. Hopefully the project becomes exponential and the lab techniques are used for generations. The chart below demonstrates the possibility of the number of students reached with the program. This is just an estimate as the kits will probably be used for more than five years.

Number of soil health kits, Years used, Average number of students taught, Total number of students reached
140, 5, 20, 14,000

Of course the idea is that all these students will become better, more-informed stewards of the land. Many of them will become producers themselves. Hopefully these individuals will be prepared to make more informed decisions about the sustainability of their farming or ranching program. For those who do not become producers they may have a garden, where they can perform more sustainable practices. They also are consumers of food and may make more informed decisions when purchasing food.

In my own class it was fun to bring the labs into the discussions. Kids were amazed at some of the test and their results, many of them were surprised and excited. The kits made soil science easier to understand and more exciting.

The production of the grant was exhausting at times. I put a lot of time into the kits trying to find the least expensive materials. I also spent numerous hours and put many miles on my vehicle traveling to collect the parts. It was fun though to make the many contacts in compiling the kits. Many people were very willing to help once you told them what you were doing. I received many strange looks when purchasing the products. Anytime you purchase eighty measuring cups and 120 sponges, people are bound to ask a question.

If I was to change something about the project I would employ more help. The kits that I built last summer for North Dakota agriculture teachers I had little help.  I would also utilize the agriculture teachers around me for more help as many of them were willing to assist.

I shared information about the project with others by attending two conferences. The first was at the North Dakota Career and Technical Education Conference Held on August 11, 2009. The second was the Minnesota Association for Agriculture Educators Winter Technical Conference held on January 15-16, 2010.  I reached approximately 140 agriculture teachers in the two states.  The project also reached numerous other agriculture teachers throughout the country because the lab manual has been placed on the National FFA website, where anybody has access to it.

I was also interviewed twice for the grant. Once by the Dickinson Press (local paper), that ran an article about the grant.   Al Gustan also interviewed me about the project for the Farm Report show; a syndicated broadcast. I currently have no plans for future outreach, although a few teachers who were unable to attend the conferences have contacted me about receiving a kit. If I was asked at a future date I could probably present the kits to other teachers.

I really have no recommendations. I was very pleased with the process and felt the administrators were helpful. I had to receive an extension because I had an opportunity to provide soil health kits for Minnesota teachers. This was after the December 31st deadline, but the administrators of the program indicated it would be fine to turn in my paperwork late, due to the extenuating circumstances.

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.