Developing an Affordable Soil Health Test for the Appalachian Region to Incentivize Sustainable Agricultural Production

Project Overview

LNE21-420
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $248,302.00
Projected End Date: 02/29/2024
Grant Recipients: West Virginia University; University of Kentucky
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. Eugenia Pena-Yewtukhiw
West Virginia University

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Soil Management: soil analysis

    Proposal abstract:

    Problem and Justification: Soil health (SH) is the outgrowth of recognition that soil is a dynamic and complex environment harboring multiple functions. For the small-scale farmer, adopting practices known to improve soil health is hampered by the expense of laboratory soil tests giving quantitative measures of SH that may be related to productivity. The suite of approved/proposed SH measures to be provided through routine laboratory tests has not been examined for their value to, and potential adoption by, small farmers.

    Solution and Approach: We propose an iterative and participative three-stage approach to increased SH adoption that relies on field and laboratory research, economic assessment, and education. Team members will identify 30 to 50 participating farmers representing two key Appalachian region land uses located in West Virginia; high tunnel production (USDA defined specialty crop) and managed grasslands (hay/pastures). Stage 1: Farmers will be identified by the WVU Soil Testing Lab and WVU extension agents. Based on soil samples collected from these farms, and considering SH variables suited to laboratory determination, we will work field-to-lab to identify the most responsive laboratory biological (e.g. respiration, enzyme), chemical (e.g. nutrients) and physical (e.g. aggregation) methods to distinguish categorical SH levels (e.g. low, medium, good) related to land-use productivity. Soil health test results will be correlated to productivity of chosen land uses so as to generate preliminary management recommendations. Correlation will be based on yield measurements for the crops common to high tunnels and grasslands and/or to indigenous/local productivity knowledge. A short-term evaluation of perceived benefits from SH testing will be made. Surveys will evaluate interest and potential adoption by additional farmers. Stage 2: Cost optimization for the best SH tests previously identified will be used to select the best combination of analyses (price/efficiency/farmer approval) for Appalachian farmers. Our goal is to create a suite of SH tests with a cost of less than $35 for WV landowners (WV partially subsidizes routine analyses) and less than $45 for other Appalachian states. Stage 3: For the methods selected in Stage 2, we will design field soil sampling and sample submission methods, a sampling Do-It-Yourself ‘kit’ for the Appalachian region (as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission). With the participation and feedback of early farmer participants, and support of extension agents from several WV counties, educational videos will be developed to illustrate to prospective users the how, when, and where of effective SH sampling, lab report interpretation, and the economic and environmental benefits to implementation of recommended practices. Early adopters can demonstrate the effectiveness of improved SH management and stimulate the broader adoption of SH testing and SH management.

    Performance targets from proposal:

    At project’s end we expect that lower soil health test costs will motivate 100 farmers/year (in WV and other neighboring Appalachian States) to adopt the New WV Appalachian Soil Health Test for 25/year high tunnels and 1000 grassland acres, repeating the test every two to three years and implementing recommended management/conservation practices (organic materials amendment, rotational grazing) and causing a 20% improvement in later measures of one or more soil health indicators.

    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.