Priming for production: A podcast on soil health

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $14,818.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2017
Grant Recipient: University of Maryland
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Natalie Lounsbury
University of New Hampshire
Dr. Ray Weil
University of Maryland

Annual Reports

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: extension, podcasts
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, indicators, soil stabilization, soil management
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    We have observed through our work that farmers of diverse backgrounds and growing methods want to know more about essential soil science concepts and current research in soil management. Time to devote to learning, however, is limited, and farmers have expressed to us that many outreach efforts are inaccessible. This project seeks to provide an educational opportunity for farmers in the form of a podcast (audio file) that can be consumed while performing farm chores like deliveries, tractor work, and greenhouse work. By making basic soil science concepts as well as new research and innovative farming practices accessible and entertaining through interviews with scientists and farmers, the objective is to empower farmers to become better farmer-scientists themselves. A farmer advisory panel including experienced and beginning farmers will develop a list of topics, advise on episode format, and review podcast episodes before release. Scientist interviewees will also review podcast episodes before release to ensure the science is accurate. To complement the podcast, a companion website will have photos, transcripts, and links to more information on the topic of each episode. The podcast will be available through iTunes for easy downloading onto smartphones and on the website. We will advertise the podcast via agricultural service provider newsletters, meetings, and social media outlets as well as through our farmer advisory panel and their connections. Because the podcast will focus on essential concepts, the episodes should be enduring educational tools based on sound science and farmer experience.          

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Proposed solution





      1. How can we provide educational resources about soil science and the latest research in soil management to farmers in a way that fits their needs, schedules, and budget? 




      1. Is a podcast generally, and our podcast, specifically an effective educational resource for this type of material?



    Objectives related to questions:



      1. Create an audio podcast and companion website about basic soil science concepts and (some of) the latest research in soil management, including institutional and on-farm research. The podcast should:
          1. Be relevant to farmers

          1. Be scientifically sound

          1. Be engaging as well as informative

          1. Include actionable items 




      1. Measure efficacy of educational materials through farmer advisory panel feedback, surveys, and download statistics.



    To meet objective 1a, that the podcast be relevant to farmers, we will convene a farmer advisory panel composed of experienced and beginning farmers. We will provide a list of possible topics, the panel will provide additional topics, and then will rank the topics. The podcast episode topics will be selected from the top-ranked topics. Possible basic topics include but are not limited to:


    Nitrogen cycle


                How fertilizer works


    Nitrate leaching


                Decomposition of cover crops & organic materials


                Legume N fixation


    What plants need/ how they assimilate N


                Pre-sidedress nitrate test


    Other nutrients & their cycles


    Organic matter


    Soil organisms


    Interpreting a soil test & what to do




    Element by element


                Cation exchange capacity


    Tillage, soil compaction, soil aggregation, erosion


    The key components of each podcast episode are: basic science, new research, and actionable items. The length of each episode and a final list of episodes will be determined by the farmer advisory panel if this project is funded. In selecting topics, the farmer advisory panel will choose things that are not only interesting, but that will enhance farmers’ decision-making and innovation on the farm. Research that does not have any clear application will not be considered. Depending on the length determined for each podcast, 3-6 hours of content will be released, possibly more. This conservative estimate is based on the understanding that entire interviews will not be included in the podcast; interviews will be edited to be direct and engaging. If the farmer advisory panel deems it worthy, unedited versions of interviews could also be made public. This is the end of Natalie’s paid involvement in the project.  


    The basic science part of each episode will include interviews with scientists, and the research parts of episodes will include interviews with scientists and/or farmers in a research area related to the general theme of the episode. Natalie will line up the interviews, research the area, and prepare in-depth questions prior to the in-person interviews.


    An example of the possible flow of an episode:


    Topic: Nitrate leaching



      • Overview of the microbes involved in creating nitrate and conditions they favor with Stephanie Yarwood, University of Maryland soil microbiologist.


      • Ways to limit nitrate leaching on the farm and to test for how much nitrate you’re losing


      • Interview with Charlie White, Penn State, about their research on multi-species cover crops and the nitrogen dynamics



    To meet objective 1b, that the podcast be scientifically sound, we will have the scientist interviewees as well as at least one other scientist review the podcast before release to ensure the material has been presented accurately.


    To meet objective 1c, that the podcast be engaging as well as informative, each episode will include some narrative/storytelling components. Questions will be tailored to the audio-only format; where a visual cue would be used, clarification in words will be provided. The interviews will be conducted in person for maximum sound quality and to facilitate “audio tours” of farms and labs as well as to allow for photographs for the companion website. Each episode will be edited and remixed to cut out slow parts. Finally, we will ask our farmer advisory panel to review the episodes and provide feedback on what could make them more engaging.


    To meet objective 1d, that the podcast include some actionable items, we will always include something that farmers can observe, measure, or implement on their farms instead of just theory.


    To meet objective 2, to measure the efficacy of a podcast as an educational outreach tool, we will monitor download statistics and site visits to our website. We will ask our farmer advisory panel to review each episode, and we will include a reminder on each episode that listeners visit the website to fill out a survey. For subscribers to the podcast, we will also email reminders of online surveys. The online surveys will ask for feedback on how listeners’ knowledge changed by listening to the podcast, whether listeners intend to make any changes in their farming practices based on the information in the podcast, and how listeners rank the podcast in comparison to other outreach tools, and whether the podcast format in general (not this specific podcast) is an outreach tool they would utilize more if it existed. Room for specific comments will also be provided. Interpretation of results will include a comparison between specific episodes as well as a broader interpretation of the podcast as an outreach tool.   


    This project will be a half time job for Natalie Lounsbury for a six month period from April 1, 2015-September 30, 2015. The outreach and survey compilation and analysis will occur after this period.


    April 1- April 15, 2015: Convene farmer advisory panel (electronically), determine list of topics and episode format. Once topic list is finalized, Natalie and Ray will contact possible interviewees and line up interviews.


    April 16-May 15, 2015: Pilot episode. Natalie will conduct interviews for pilot episode, remix, edit, and send to farmer and scientist reviewers. Reviewers will provide feedback on formatting and content. Revised episode will be released. Feedback will be taken into consideration for the next episodes.


    Natalie and Ray will develop survey questions for posting with release of podcast. Survey questions will address objective 2, to measure the impact of specific episodes, the podcast in general, and the potential for audio-only outreach materials.


    May 16- September 30, 2015: Continuation of interviews and podcast release by Natalie. Ray will serve as interviewee for many of the basic science concepts. Number of episodes will be influenced by the length of each episode as discussed previously.


    September 30, 2015- March 31, 2016: Outreach efforts for podcast, survey compilation and analysis (no time devoted to new podcast production). Meeting at end with farmer advisory panel to review and discuss project. Natalie, Ray, and farmer advisors will be involved in this portion.  



    Our target audience is farmers of all types as we have found that soil-mindedness transcends “types” of farming (e.g. organic). Though our focus will primarily be on soil management as it relates to crop production, we may dedicate an episode or two to livestock and soil management if our farmer advisory panel determines it is needed.


    The podcast will be made available through iTunes and on our current website, a section of which will be devoted to the podcast. We will ask organizations like the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), Future Harvest-CASA, On Pasture, Northeast Organic Farmers Association (state groups), and other regional farming organizations with whom we have established relationships as well as university extension services to include information about the podcast in newsletters and social media. We will also ask regional farmer training programs to share information about the podcast with attendees at workshops.


    We have found that the NE-SARE Facebook page drives a lot of traffic to our website and we will ask Helen or whoever else manages the page to advertise each episode there. The podcasts will be included in the SARE project page as a product. Ultimately, farmer-to-farmer word of mouth and shared social media by farmers, is the best method for disseminating information among farmers.  Our farmer advisory panel will help do this by sharing the podcast with colleagues, farm staff, and aspiring farmers they advise.


    If the podcast is successful and we receive adequate survey responses, we will also disseminate results about using podcasts as an outreach tool among extension colleagues.

    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.