Soil Health Committee Grant Recipient Presents at Cropping Conference

One of the 2017 Washington State Soil Health Committee grant recipients presented at the Pacific Northwest Direct See Association’s 2018 Cropping Systems Conference Program in Kennewick, WA.

The Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District received a grant to purchase four, 48 inch AquaSpy Soil Probes. Additionally, they purchased a two-year subscription for a cloud storage service. The probes will upload data every 15 minutes via a solar powered on-site apparatus.

 

The purpose of the grant was to document measured changes in soil moisture, temperature and conductivity every four inches to a soil depth of 48 inches. This will be during a fallow season and after wheat winter was planted in the follow in the fall.
The equipment will document changes through the harvest of 2018.

Soil Health Project Reports 2017

These are the first reports for the eight new contracts for 2017-2020 and for the continuation in 2017 of the first round of projects, which received additional funding. The results are encouraging and, in some cases, fascinating. By demonstrating positive outcomes, these results will promote better soil practices in our state.

Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District:
A new project to measure and compare moisture retention in cover crop fallow and direct seed fallow

This study is a home run. By comparing moisture retention every four inches up to 48” in side by side cover crop fallow and direct seed fallow, the study has these results so far:

  1. No net loss of moisture in cover crop fallow as compared to direct seed fallow
  2. Decrease in soil temperature in cover crop fallow which benefits soil organisms
  3. Suppression of weeds without herbicides
  4. Reduction of soil compaction, which enhances moisture absorption and retention
  5. Reduction in soil erosion
  6. Early signs of possible increase in yield

San Juan Conservation District Conservation District:
Continuation of biochar project begun in 2016. Following up on the original six-farm test plots, in which biochar was added to soil, the yield will be evaluated in the spring of 2018. In addition to the test plots, biochar kilns were designed and provided to forest landowners on each of the four ferry-served islands. Workshops were offered on each island to demonstrate how to make biochar from forest waste. Online instructions are available for making biochar at home.

Biochar was added as an alternative to the slash burns in the County’s draft Solid Waste Management Plan.

The San Juan CD also starts a new three-year project to introduce no till-direct seed practices to the county, including use of cover crops to improve soil health and limit use of chemicals.

Underwood Conservation District:
Completion of original 2015-2016 project to monitor soil moisture in test plots in an orchard, using a control plot, a plot with compost, and a plot with compost and mulch

Results so far show no significant difference in moisture. We are waiting to hear if there is any difference in productivity (yield). We have questions about the 2017 workshop: how may attended, who were the presenters, and what did they present?

Washington Environmental Council:
Continuation of Nisqually Community Forest project which aims to create a template for sustainable forest practices in Pacific Northwest forests.

  1. The project has linked sustainable forest practices with improvements in both water quality and quantity
  2. DOE’s Clean Water Revolving fund was changed to allow sustainable forest projects including forest land purchases
  3. First certified Carbon Project with 520 acres saved from clear-cutting with Microsoft buying the carbon credits
  4. Set up protocol and step-by-step process for creating and selling carbon credits to offset the cost of land purchases
  5. Demonstrating that by growing trees longer, e., longer harvest rotations, the forest is more resilient and stores more carbon over time; older forests also provide better wildlife habitat

    Whitman Conservation District:
    Experiments with various cover crops in the Palouse to identify those best for fall and for spring and to determine whether pelletized compost adds extra yield or other ecological benefits. This will be evaluated in the spring of 2018.

Washington State University: Soil Health Field Day
Soil Health Field Day in Davenport at the experimental farm. Well attended with dozens of farmers and conservationists. Highlighted soil differences between no-till and conventional test plots.

Washington State University:
First year of three-year study of soil characteristics in irrigated agriculture in Eastern Washington.

  1. 60 soil samples were studied from 30 growers to establish a baseline.
  2. Some of the results were surprising, for example, that the amount of soil fines was inexplicably low in many sites.
  3. Several “exemplary soils” were discovered, which were also surprising. More research will be done to discover the secret of those exemplary soils
  4. This study includes a process of evaluating which soil health measurements are of value, and which are not.

Healthy Soil, Healthy Wine

One of the current “best practices” for the wine industry is biodynamic viticulture, as successfully practiced in Oregon and for many decades, if not centuries, in Europe. Wines grown with biodynamic practices have “brightness and a purity of place.” Terroir is the word, something with a lot of cache these days.

At Bergstrom Wines in Newborn, Oregon, Josh Bergstrom, the winemaker, studied viticulture in Burgundy, France. He found that the best producers had biodynamics in common, so he adopted biodynamics in his family’s estate vineyards.  This means no synthetic chemicals or fertiziers. It focuses on building soil health and adding animal and plant biodiversity. The wine produced by Bergstrom has no residual insecticides or pesticides, plus tasting “bright” and earthy, with its natural terroir due to grapes grown in living soils rather than chemically altered or degraded soils.

In September 2016, Oregon’s King Estate Winery became the largest biodynamic vineyard in the United States, as certified by Demeter USA. Demeter USA is the world’s only certifier of biodynamic farms and products.

Check out the full article in Alaska Beyond, the onboard mag from Alaska Airlines, page 73 of the April 2017 issue: “Ecology Meets Enology” by Kerry Newberry.

Call For Proposals For Soil Health Projects

The Washington Soil Health Committee is announcing the availability of competitive grants to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative approaches and technologies related to Soil Health on Washington agricultural and forest lands lands, as defined below. Proposals will be accepted from eligible entities in Washington State. The Soil Health Committee anticipates that the amount of funding available for support will be up to $10,000 per year for each approved proposal, subject to appropriations actions. Proposals for competitive consideration of grant awards for single or multi-year projects not to exceed 3 years in duration are requested for projects that focus on innovation, resource assessment, research, education, and public outreach. Proposals will be considered from conservation districts, non-profit organizations, governmental entities, and landowners.

For complete information and to apply, see this document.

“We Are Legion”

“We are legion.” Mushrooms, or Fungi, are everywhere.  They are an essential component of healthy soil. As old as the oldest plants, and far older than animals, fungi occupy their own branch in the tree of evolution. Without fungi, green plants would perish. They restrict the length of life and prevent abnormal reproduction of both plans and animals. Without fungi, neither plants nor animals would survive. We have much to learn about how to live productively with our fungal friends, but one novel partnership has proven successful in the Swiss Alps.

As reported in Earth, January/February 2017 at p. 36, mycorrhizal fungi used to inoculate plant roots on steep, eroding, gravelly hillsides stabilized the hillsides within a few years of inoculation. It turns out that fungi can be an eco-engineering tool to stabilize steep slopes.

As Paul Hallett, a soil scientist at the University of Aberdeen Scotland, reported, the study shows that “there are benefits to using a fungal inoculum in restoring a quite degraded alpine environment.”  The next step is to establish more field sites to test a “wide assortment of environments exploring the influence of both plans and microbial diversity on stabilization.”
The Washington State Soil Health Committee hopes to find a good field site to demonstrate an eco-friendly way to mitigate slide hazards, especially on sites disturbed by construction, logging, or other human activities.

A Year of Soil Health Projects and Progress

Five state-wide soil health projects funded by the Washington State Soil Health Committee (“SHC”) in 2016 have achieved excellent results. In late fall of 2015, the SHC awarded grants to four organizations to conduct soil health field trials across the state. By September 1, 2016, reports were in for all projects, with initial evidence of positive findings.

These projects explored soil health issues in diverse geographic areas, from the forests of the Nisqually River watershed to small farms in San Juan County, from a vineyard and orchard in Klickitat and Skamania counties to dryland farming in the Columbia Plateau, as well as pasture lands across the state. New strategies for improving soil health were tested, documented, and are now being published and shared with farmers, ranchers, and resource conservationists.

Preliminary results in San Juan County show that biochar, when added to crop soils, significantly increases total carbon content as well as enhancing soil nutrient and moisture retention. When the crops are harvested in the spring of 2017, all indications are that there will be a significant overall improvement in plant productivity.

In Klickitat and Skamania counties, soil health has been significantly enhanced by adding a thin layer of compost to orchard and vineyard soils along with a cover crop to a degraded pasture. These soils have been tested using the Haney soil heath score and are measurably improved by the addition of compost. The recovery of soils in the degraded pastureland has been remarkable to date and will be monitored and tested in the spring of 2017.

In the Nisqually River watershed, forest soil health has been found to benefit in many ways from longer rotations and attention to conservation of topsoil. The Nisqually Community Forest will serve as a statewide model for forest management, with increased focus on the importance of managing forest soils through best management practices.

Finally, Foster Creek Conservation District developed a draft strategic plan and purchased equipment to instigate a long-term Soil Testing and Monitoring program within the Douglas County region. This new program commences in spring 2017 and will assess changes in the soil for participants in FCCD’s Direct Seed program. Two soil health workshops were held for local producers – one in June (in collaboration with Okanogan Conservation District), focused on cover crops and direct seed, the second in November targeting crop rotation. A copy of the Symphony of the Soil Educational DVD Collection was also purchased, and is available for loan to Douglas County producers.

To achieve these excellent results, the SHC worked in partnership with soil scientists and other experts from WSU, UW School of Environmental Sciences, NRCS, Nisqually River Council, Nisqually Land Trust, Nisqually Tribe, Northwest Natural Resource Group, Microbial Matrix Systems, Inc., Domain Pouillon Vineyard, Dirt Hugger, Forage, DOE, as well as the four projects managers, the Foster Creek Conservation District, the San Juan Islands Conservation District, the Underwood Conservation District, and the Washington Environmental Council. The SHC is funded through a partnership agreement between the Washington State Conservation Commission and NRCS.

Pesticides and the Future of AgroSpheres

Two undergraduates may have saved the planet from the toxic residue of agricultural pesticides. In 2006 and 2007, the EPA found that the world was flooded with 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides each year. The breakthrough invented by two U. of Virginia undergraduates is to speed the degradation of these pesticides on the surface of plants. Currently it takes weeks, sometimes months, for the toxic effects of the pesticides to wear off. The new solution, called AgroSpheres, is doing this in a matter of hours.
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AgroSpheres consist of a tiny ball of enzymes created biologically to breakdown pesticides into other products that are non-toxic, such as sugars or fats. This new process is currently being tested on a vineyard in Virginia. It will allow safe harvesting sooner and faster, ultimately protecting the health of the farm workers as well as the plants and their living soil communities, which would otherwise be contaminated by these toxins for weeks or months after each pesticide spraying. Read the full story in the Smithsonian’s “Could These College Inventors Tackle the Global Pesticide Problem?”

Soil Committee to Attend WA Association of Conservation Districts Annual Meeting

Each year, the Washington State Soil Health Committee awards a number of grants for projects in our state seeking the sustainable advancement of soil health. Many of these grants are awarded to Conservation Districts around Washington State. Truly, Washington’s Conservation Districts make invaluable partners in the soil health revolution. The WA Soil Committee is proud to attend the WA Association of Conservation Districts Annual Meeting this November to meet with the people doing amazing things in conservation districts around the state. We will also be presenting on this year’s five grant projects. The Annual Meeting will be held November 28-30 at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, WA. For more information and to register for the conference, visit the WACD website.

The WA State Soil Health Committee Attends the First Soil Health Institute Annual Meeting

At the end of July, more than 130 soil health experts convened in Louisville, Kentucky to brainstorm about the future of soil health research. Of the many scientists, university specialists, farmers, experts, and NGO leaders in attendance, the WA State Soil Health Committee was the only state soil committee invited to attend!

Ultimately, the conference aimed to identify key areas of research and standards of measurement that could then form convincing, relevant, scientifically grounded recommendations for policy makers and agricultural producers.

The convention marked the first annual meeting of the Soil Health Institute, an organization headed by Dr. Wayne Honeycutt whose mission is “to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of the soil.”

WA State Soil Health Committee representative Gary Farrell was thrilled to be among the ranks of soil health advocates unifying behind basic soil health goals. Those goals include conducting a national assessment of soil health, identifying research gaps regarding the relationship between crop rotations and microbial soil health, creating a “digital decision support tool that enables growers to anticipate which soil amendments and crop rotations will have the greatest impact on a field’s annual return.”

For more information about the Soil Health Institute and their first annual meeting, check out their press release about the event, here.

Secrets of Life in the Soil – Scientific American

There are animals under our feet. Billions of them. A miraculous, biodiverse jungle in the soil. Professor Diana Wall, soil ecologist at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, is working to uncover the secrets of a wildly diverse animal kingdom in our soils. She has studied a group of soil animals, nematodes, in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica where she has been able to isolate the effects of drought on these soil organisms. She has shown that when soil ecosystems are devastated by erosion, pollution, pesticides, drought, and other climate change effects, the resulting soil degradation releases billions of tons of stored carbon, threatens global food production, and reduces water and air quality, Healthy soil is responsible for filtering our water and our air in ways few non-scientists appreciate. Professor Wall founded the new Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, with more than 100 other scientists, to map the underground factories of terrestrial life across the globe.

Read the full article in Scientific American.