University scale research and on-farm practicality come together in the partnership between National Corn Growers Association’s Soil Health Partnership program and Kansas State University Agronomy.
Soil Health Partnership (SHP) began as a conversation between the National Corn Growers Association, The Nature Conservancy, what was then Monsanto and The Environmental Defense Fund.
As SHP Development Manager, Elyssa McFarland notes, “There were a lot of companies interested in the space, but wanted to make sure that their support dollars translated into something that farmers could use.”
From those conversations, SHP was founded under NCGA because of the organization’s own interests and structure of being farmer led and farmer driven.
“That’s one of my favorite parts. We don’t start with a strict practice standard of ‘Here’s exactly what you have to do in a research plot on your farm.” McFarland says of the farmer-focused initiatives. “We have field staff all over—16 states that we work in and over 200 research sites that are all on-farm. We start with the farmer by asking, ‘What are the things you would like to see working better, what do you have the capacity on-farm to implement as a (soil health) management change?”
Today, the research that SHP conducts falls into three broad “buckets”: reduced tillage; cover crops and nutrient management with new site applications focused on relevance, SHP resource availability and both practicality and scalability. The research is on-going in 16 states with different partners and objectives in every area. Currently both Tennessee and Kentucky are in open enrollment, and starting the process requires as little as picking up the phone and visiting with the SHP field managers in those areas.
“We receive interest all of the time, and one of the things that we try to balance is utilizing resources as effectively as possible,” McFarland says. “We want to make sure that we have research in the right areas and that we are answering the right questions. That means operating in different states, and starting every enrollment with an assessment to make sure that farmer has the capacity to implement and commit to the research, as well as the ability to scale.”
The commitment asked of farmers is far from an all or nothing approach, with plot sizes averaging from 20 to 80 acres. McFarland says that the relatively small acreage commitment ensures that plots are large enough to implement a new practice and ensure scalability but small enough to be manageable.
With many sites now in their seventh year, the on-farm research is beginning to tell a story.
“We are starting to see changes in soil health and we aren’t seeing the yield drags that some are talking about. We feel like that is because of our agronomists that work one on one with a farmer to make sure that what is being implemented in the research coincides with the other management decisions on the farm,” says McFarland.
For more than seven years, Ignacio Ciampitti, associate professor, crop production and cropping system, has worked closely with Kansas Corn Growers Association to deliver best management practice research important to Kansas producers’ ability to successfully grow a corn crop, no matter which part of the state they farm in.
“The state is so diverse. You go from the northeast corner where producers are getting 200-250 bushels an acre to western Kansas dry-land corn where we are trying to get 100-110 bushels. The programs look quite different depending on the environment,” Ciampitti says.
When discussions and collaborations between Kansas State University’s Dr. Charles Rice, distinguished professor of soil microbiology, and Ciampitti, SHP and Kansas Corn began three years ago, one of the main points of focus was providing farmers data-driven recommendations.
“That’s the beauty of this program,” Ciampitti says. “That’s why things got started. The on-farm concept is something that I have really enjoyed working on. It’s not about perceptions—Carlos and Dr. Rice have been good at creating exact protocols for others interested. We aren’t just focusing on one crop’s performance; we are focusing on the soil, the economics and the plant,” he says.
Ciampitti says that one of the main challenges faced by extension research professionals is that they find themselves tasked with asking a farmer to do something. However, the on-farm, data-driven approach removes much of that by asking farmers what they want to learn. The collaborations bring forward agricultural “champions” who are continuously looking for opportunities to improve their operation, and who will commit the time to monitoring and implementing on a broader scale, what they have learned.
Under the advisement of Dr Rice, Carlos Pires serves the research team in the capacity of graduate research associate to add on-farm soil microbiology testing to the partnership.
“We separate the groups of microorganisms to measure gram-positive bacteria, gram-negative bacteria, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and do enzyme analysis to better understand nutrient cycling. We are also analyzing aggregation which we know is one of the most important soil health indicators,” Pires says.
In addition to monitoring the soil microbiome, Pires, with Ciampitti and Rice, help the farmers they work with to better understand the value of a health soil microbial population and the influence production management practices have on those populations.
“Biology is a hot topic right now,” Rice says. “They (farmers) know it’s important but they don’t know how what they are doing is affecting the biology. That’s why SHP and producer groups like Kansas Corn are so important; these five and ten year on-farm trials are a way to quantify and see the trendline for soil health improvement. We are at the three-year mark on a few trials and those trendlines are showing soil health improvement at the on-farm level. That’s exciting!”
More exciting still, is the interest and engagement the research partnership is seeing from both farmers who hope to improve their soil health practices and an urban consumer base interested in sustainable agriculture.
“When Dr. Rice came up with this project, I thought: This is what I want to do. I want to translate this soil microbiology to farmers. That brought us to soil health field days in Kansas,” Pires shares.
To-date, the collaborative partnership has held five soil health field days, hosted at different on-farm research sites. Collectively, the field days have reached more than 400 farmers, and the team notes that even under the regulations of COVID-19 social distancing, the evening session of the 2020 field day near Kansas City reached maximum capacity.
“We are bringing in the urban and non-ag audience. Soil health resonates with the non-ag oriented audience,” Rice says. “They think of human-health and animal-health, so it’s a good touch point to relate to the urban audience in understanding agriculture in a different and positive way. It’s a good communication tool to connect.”
For more on the Soil Health Partnership, visit www.soilhealthpartnership.org