While the importance of soil for crop production has long been known, there is a growing movement to look beyond the basic physical and chemical properties of soil and use a holistic approach that includes biological components and additional physical and chemical factors. Good soil health building practices can increase yields and profitability while also providing water quality benefits and decreasing the volume and cost of needed inputs. The University of Maryland SARE state program conducted a 2017 online survey of 551 Ag Service Providers (ASPs) and farmers. Of the 95 responses, soil health received the top ranking when respondents were asked to rank their three top choices for expanded professional development opportunities in sustainable ag production topics. These results further justify the need for this project.
As a continuation of the 2014-2017 Maryland “Building Soil Health” PDP project, this project will offer comprehensive education to agricultural service providers in soil health to enable them to help farmers understand the value of healthy soil and adopt the best production practices for increasing the health of farm soil. Project educational programs will also include adult learning principles to help ensure that ASPs have the teaching tools necessary to effectively facilitate learning. This project will also incorporate demonstration trials established through the 2016 Northeast SARE partnership grant for soil health promotion as sites for train-the-trainer education sessions. The demonstrations for the partnership grant focus on delaying termination of cover crops beyond the minimum date mandated by the Maryland cover crop incentive program, in which most grain farmers participate. This project will also instruct educators in the use of a new soil health management self-evaluation tool that is being developed through the above-mentioned partnership grant.
Maryland ASPs will be invited to participate in webinars, workshops and field days through email and newsletter announcements. ASPs will also be invited to apply to participate at a more engaged level as a ‘core group’. Benefits of membership in this group will include opportunities to help direct field trials and demonstrations on cooperating farmers’ fields and to participate in in-depth trainings aimed at improving their capacities to teach farmers. Thirty core group will be selected. 20 of these members will be chosen to participate in a field trip to Rodale Institute Experimental Farm planned for year 2.
Farmers will participate in some of the field-based workshops, as recruited by the ASPs assisting with workshop coordination.
Performance targets from proposal:
30 Agricultural service providers (ASPs) will incorporate new adult learning and soil health principles and practices into their educational programs and advising, reaching 500 grain and vegetable farmers representing 37,500 acres. Of these, 20 ASPs will guide 100 farmers to complete a soil health management self-evaluation tool on their fields.