Networking for Soil Health

2016 Annual Report for ENC15-147

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2015: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2016
Grant Recipient: Sustainable Farming Association
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Wayne Monsen
Sustainable Farming Association
Kent Solberg
Sustainable Farming Association

Networking for Soil Health


This project titled “Networking for Soil Health” is designed to expand the number of agricultural support professionals who are able to conduct successful soil health related programs for farmers.  The Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) is a leading organization in the promotion of soil health and this train the trainer program will greatly expand the network of soil health education, educators and events.  

SFA's definition of soil health is grounded in 5 Soil Health Principles: Keep the soil covered. Minimize soil disturbance. Increase crop diversity. Keep living roots in the soil. Integrate livestock.

The fifth principle, integrate livestock, makes SFA's soil health programming unique.  Livestock numbers on the landscape have really decreased in the last 50 years or so.  While cover crops are not an end in themselves as some sectors in agriculture imply, they are a tool that can aid farmers moving toward improved soil health.  Cover crops can also serve as a bridge to bring livestock back on the landscape. The integration of livestock, typically via cover crop grazing, can improve the economic viability of cover crop use. The value of  manure for building organic matter and soil fertility is well documented.

The SFA will target many Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, Extension, crop consultants, and other agricultural professionals to be trained in these 5 principles of soil health.  Through in-person training workshops, on-farm field days and a website portal designated to soil health the agricultural professional trainees will receive a well-rounded education.  In turn, they can return to their communities and conduct effective soil health events for farmers and agricultural professionals expanding Minnesota’s soil health network.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  1.  Train the Trainer Events and Scholarships:

The target budget for scholarships given to agricultural professionals to attend the Train the Trainer events is $15,000 over the two year project.  We estimated that 30 agricultural professionals would attend an event and be trained in the 5 principles of soil health.  We are conducting Train the Trainer events through the Midwest Soil Health Summit and workshop/field day events.  

  1.  Build the Soil Health Network Database:

The SFA maintains a network database of people that are interested in soil health.  This network consists of agricultural service providers, educators, and producers that are working in soil health or have attended a soil health educational event.  This database can be shared with others to help spread the word about the benefits of soil health.

Participants at a soil health education event that use the SFA’s soil health portal automatically are entered into the soil health network database.

  1.  Soil Health Web Portal:

The SFA has developed a website designated to soil health at:  This web portal will serve as the “go to place” for information about soil health.  Objectives 4 and 5 of this project are part of the soil health portal.  The web address for the portal is:

The portal serves as the communications hub for all things soil health.  The checklist for hosts to use for planning and conducting a soil health education event and a form to be used for registering attendees at events are also part of the soil health portal.

The site has an Events Calendar where Soil Health Network members can post soil health education events.  

The portal also has a Resource Library at:  This site has a form that event hosts can use to plan their soil health education event.  There also is a form for hosts to use to sign-in attendees.  Numerous videos have been taken at events and are shown on the SFA’s YouTube channel.  Numerous presentations on soil health are also located on the Resource Library portal.

The portal also has an Events Archive which houses many soil health and grazing events.  Both summaries and videos of events are listed.    

  1.  Checklist to Help Conduct a Soil Health Event:

The SFA provides a template to help soil health education hosts conduct successful events.   This template is on the soil health portal in the Resource Library.

  1.  Webinars on Soil Health:

The goal is to conduct 2 soil health education webinars over the 2-year period the project.  The SFA staff also take videos at workshops and field days.  These videos are placed on the SFA soil health portal.


  1. Train the Trainer Events and Scholarships:

As of February 16, 2017  SFA has given out 53 scholarships for an approximate total of $13,500.  Scholarships went to 29 agricultural professionals to the pre-conference of the 2016 Midwest Soil Health Summit, 10 to summer field days in August 2016, and 14 to the 2017 Midwest Soil Health Summit.  The SFA is well ahead of the 30 scholarships originally planned.  There is still $1,500 available to give scholarships for agricultural professionals to attend the planned 2017 summer field days.  These field days  are planned for south central and southeast Minnesota in August.

The first training event, “Building Soil Health Experts: Advanced Training for Professionals” was held February 17, 2016 in Alexandria.  This was a pre-conference event held in conjunction with the Midwest Soil Health Summit.  Here is the link to view the agenda:  Building Soil Health Experts, Advanced Training for Professionals.The SFA applied and received the opportunity to provide 5.5 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to certified crop advisers.  There were 7 certified crop advisers that received the CEUs from this pre-conference.

At the 2016 advanced training pre-conference scholarships went to 11 SWCD technicians, 7 NRCS staff, 5 Extension, 1 staff from the MN Department of Agriculture, 1 from an RC&D in WI, and 4 agricultural consultants.

The summary of the soil health education events hosted by scholarship recipients is described in the Accomplishments/Milestones section below.

The two summer field days titled “Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts” were held in Redwood Falls on August 16 and August 17 in Marshall.  These 2 field days were in partnership with The Pasture Project.  Please click on this link to view the flyer on the events:  Dirt Rich Redwood Falls, Marshall (2) .  Morning  were classroom style workshops and  afternoon sessions on  cooperating farms.  

A YouTube video with Dr. Allen Williams describing how to tell by smell if you have healthy soil is posted on the SFA Soil Health portal in the resources page.  This YouTube video was taken at the Marshall field day.

The 2017 Midwest Soil Health Summit was recently held in Fergus Falls on February 15 and 16.  Click on this link to see the agenda:  2017-MSHS-PROGRAM-web.  Over 130 people attended the 2-day summit.  The SFA gave out 14 scholarships to agricultural professionals: 4 were to SWCD technicians, 2 to NRCS staff (1 from MI), 4 to Extension (1 from an agriculture teacher at a community college), 1 to a MN DNR employee, 3 to consultants.  

The SFA was contacted by a statistics program at the University of Minnesota wanting to evaluate an evaluation program on nonprofit organization.  Under the advisement Professor Nathaniel Helwig student project members Georgia Huang and Enoch Kan reviewed evaluations from three of the soil health education events.  When the report is complete, the students will provide recommendations for improving the evaluation processes going forward. Here's the link to the interim report:  STATCOM_sfa_report.

  1.  Build the Soil Health Network Database:

Jason Walker, the SFA's Communications Director, built and maintains the Soil Health Database.  To date there are about 1,000 people entered into the database.  The database is electronic based where names and email addresses are used.  

  1.  Soil Health Web Portal:

The soil health web portal is up and running on the SFA website.  It is changed and updated regularly.  The portal has a comprehensive calendar of SFA soil health events.  Members of the Soil Health Network can post their events on the calendar.  The site also includes videos, documents and guides created and collected by SFA staff.  There are links to partner organizations and relevant articles on soil health.

The SFA offers a wonderful service through this site.  Members of the Soil Health Network can register their education events and the event is put on the Soil Health Events Calendar.  The SFA takes pre-registration and fees, helps publicize the event, sends the registration list to the host just prior to the event, after the event a post-evaluation survey is sent to registrants, the summary of the evaluation is shared with the host, and the Soil Health Network database grows as the participants are entered into the database.  

We have found that there is a learning curve with using the Soil Health Calendar.  SFA staff are working on ways to get the word out of the benefits of using the SFA services.  To date, 14 events have been posted on the calendar.

There have been 19 soil health events hosted by 2016 Midwest Soil Health scholarship recipients that did not collect names or email addresses of attendees.  At a few of the events no registration list was taken nor email addresses requested.  Some soil health events were held without using the SFA soil health calendar to register participants.  There was one winter meeting where the participant list was not shared because of a county policy that any event that includes feedlot issues the participant list is not shared.  There were 175 people at this winter meeting.

Each of the scholarship recipients agreed to host at least one soil health education event within one year of the summit.  To date, all but 9 scholarship recipients from the 2016 Midwest Soil Health Summit have held an education event. Three recipients have left their jobs and will not be holding an event and 6 recipients will be asked again to do one or be part of an event.

To date scholarship recipients have held or been part of 2 winter meetings and 19 field days or farm tours.  There were over 200 attendees at the 2 winter meetings and over 850 attendees at the 19 field days.  As stated above, many attendee email addresses were not taken or provided and thus, were not entered in the database.  It is very likely many of these people are in the database because of being involved in other  related events.

  1.  Checklist to Help Conduct a Soil Health Event:

The soil health portal of the SFA website serves as a checklist to help the host of a soil health education event put on an event.  The form is located within the Resource Library and is titled “Soil Health Event Network Flyer Template.”  This template helps a network plan a soil health education event.  It helps the host describe: What is the event; When is the event; Where is the event; Who should attend; Details of the event; and Registration information.

  1.  Webinars on Soil Health:

Thus far,  SFA has not conducted a webinar on soil health.  All of the education activities by the SFA have either been at workshops, conferences, or field days.  Kent Solberg, SFA’s educator, has presented at 14 events focusing on improving soil health with incorporation of cover crops and livestock on farms.  Many of his presentations are highlighted in Events Archive on Soil Health portal.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Soil health is a main focus of SFA and the staff are excited to be part of this very big issue.  With the help of the SARE PDP the SFA is advancing the  soil health message.  Under the 5 principles of soil health farmers can improve soil health and increase economic viability at the same time.  

Soil health is a hot issue in the mainstream agricultural press. For instance, “The Progressive Farmer” magazine dedicated the entire mid-February 2017 edition to soil health.  These are exciting times for soil health and the SFA is proud to play a part in raising awareness and providing education.