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Communicating the Hope in Healthy Soil - Nichols

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70th SWCS International Annual Conference
July 26-29, 2015
Greensboro, NC

Published in: Environment
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Communicating the Hope in Healthy Soil - Nichols

  1. 1. Improving Soil Health: The conservation opportunity of a lifetime United States Department of Agriculture is an equal opportunity provider and employer. Ron Nichols, Public Affairs Officer USDA-NRCS
  2. 2. “Agriculture is facing a huge loss of non-renewable resources… we can’t wait till 2050 to start. The clock’s ticking. We’re already at the tipping point. We must start planning now.” Paul Farrell, MarketWatch Why soil health? Why now?
  3. 3. Need to minimize environmental production impacts Keeping topsoil and inputs where they belong – on the land.
  4. 4. Soil health as a key solution… Benefits of improving soil health include…  Improve water quality  Regulate water and reduce flooding  Cycle organic wastes and detoxify noxious chemicals  Increase soil carbon and remove CO2  Save energy  Save water and increase drought tolerance  Increased infiltration and water holding capacity.  Improve income sustainability  Improve plant health and possibly improve nutrient-rich food production  Reduce disease and pest pressures  Reduce sediment and nutrient delivery to surface waters decreases potential for downstream hypoxic zone formation
  5. 5. The hope in healthy soil… CEAP Survey showed 146 million acres of cropland was in moderate to high need of conservation practices. Treating this acreage with No-till, cover crops, or both could (conservatively) reduce annual loss of…  Soil— 116 million tons  Soil carbon— 11 million tons  Nitrogen— 1.9 billion pounds
  6. 6. Info-graphic by Jenn Van Eps
  7. 7. The science behind the hope is here…
  8. 8. Thought for food… No one knows exactly what it means to be working with microbes. The vast invisible communities beneath the soil are far too complex for our current level of scientific mastery to chart and control. At some level, it’s still a mystery, but it’s a mystery that provides consistent results. – Nathanael Johnson
  9. 9. The future of soil management… Apparently, then, it usually is necessary in farm practice to restore organic matter to the soil by the use of manures, green manures [cover crops], and crop residues as well as by growing in rotation those plants which supply vegetable matter through the decomposition of their roots. “Elements of Soil Conservation,” by H.H. Bennett (1947)
  10. 10. Environmental & wildlife benefits Customer & stakeholder interest Production & sustainability benefits Improving soil health
  11. 11. Campaign kick-off, October, 2012
  12. 12. We didn’t start the revolution…
  13. 13. NRCS’ awareness & education campaign…
  14. 14. Producer print profiles in soil health across the “click-able” nation….
  15. 15. Now in Season 3: The Science of Soil Health Developed in partnership with Dr. Buz Kloot, University of South Carolina
  16. 16. Foundational print-on-demand learning resources including fact sheets…
  17. 17. Info graphics for stakeholder newsletters
  18. 18. Growing media interest Thousands of unique articles on the Soil Health effort 100+ article placements in Farm Progress publications alone
  19. 19. Increasing interest…
  20. 20. Increasing interest…
  21. 21. From the author of Farmacology… Daphne Miller MD @drdaphnemiller Enjoying @USDA_NRCS#healthysoil campaign. Funnyhow much of this also applies to #healthyhumans. nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrc… 12:25 AM - 13 May 14 Reply to @drdaphnemiller Retweet Favorite
  22. 22. From author Kristin Ohlson…
  23. 23. “It starts with the soil.” Oprah promotes soil health.
  24. 24. The movement grows…
  25. 25. Carbon Underground
  26. 26. Evaluation – Tactical Following are some of the campaign’s more prominent tactical highlights, within just the first 18 months of the campaign are estimated to be valued at more than $6 million and include… • More than 3500 UNIQUE newspaper/magazine NRCS soil health articles & OpEds placed (nearly 200 ag radio features/interviews) • 75+ NRCS soil health stories placed in Farm Progress publications; several soil health- dedicated magazine editions • Full-page ad donations from the Buffett Foundation, NACD; 20 stakeholder groups using support materials • 5000+ radio PSA ad plays on ag-centric radio stations; 20 Ag Networks using spots. • - 40+ agricultural, environmental and sustainability groups submit letter supporting soil health campaign *Based on ad donations and Vocus ad equivalency estimates.
  27. 27. Evaluation – Tactical (cont.) Social media efforts: Gaining followers, gaining ground 1200 tweets by NRCS offices to 17,000 followers for more than 5 million impressions 320 tweets by 60 partners (conservation districts, NGOs, media, watershed groups, businesses) 100,000+ web page views (monthly visit averages continue to rise) 400,000+ YouTube/Vimeo video views of demos/profiles/Science of Soil Health videos
  28. 28. Farmer Perspectives on Soil Health J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. and Gabrielle Roesch-McNally SWCS Annual Conference July 28, 2015 Photo credit Mahdi Al Kaisi
  29. 29. Study context: • The concept of soil health is now central to NRCS agricultural programming • Increasing discussion in farm press, ag community • Important to know what farmers think about soil health: Does the concept resonate? • Worked with Ron Nichols, other NRCS staff, ISU faculty to develop survey questions for farmers Photo credit NRCS
  30. 30. Survey data from the 2013 and 2015 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa farmers • Focus on issues of importance to agriculture in the Midwest • Since 1982, longest-running survey of its kind • In cooperation with Iowa Dept. of Ag and Iowa Ag Stats • ~1,200 farmers • Questions focused on 1) awareness of soil health as a concept , 2) understanding of and evaluation of key measures of soil health, 3) opinions about the impacts of healthy soils, and 4) perceived capacity to manage for soil health Methods
  31. 31. In-depth interview data from qualitative research with farmers from across the Corn Belt • Key part of a USDA-NIFA-funded project called Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project: Climate Change, Mitigation, and Adaptation in Corn-based Cropping Systems (CSCAP) • In-depth interviews conducted with 159 farmers • Questions focused on conservation practice use, with a primary focus on cover crops and nutrient management, not soil health • Many farmers shared that soil health considerations were central to their conservation practice implementation decisions Methods
  32. 32. Survey Data 2013: Soil Health Indicators Rating Research questions: Are farmers familiar with soil health terminology; if so, how do they rate the soils they farm? • Percent organic matter • Available water capacity • Water infiltration rate • Presence of earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms • Bulk density • Aggregate stability • Presence of macropores • Overall health of the soil Photo credit NRCS
  33. 33. Photo credit NRCS
  34. 34. Photo credit NRCS
  35. 35. Photo credit NRCS
  36. 36. Survey Data 2015 Research questions: What do farmers think about soil health? Intro: The concept of “soil health” has been a topic of discussion in the agricultural community in recent years. Soil health has been defined as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. What are your thoughts about soil health? • Awareness of information on soil health • Potential benefits • Perceived knowledge and capacity, action • Landlord knowledge of soil health Photo credit NRCS
  37. 37. Photo credit NRCS Information about Soil Health
  38. 38. Photo credit NRCS Information about Soil Health
  39. 39. Photo credit NRCS Potential Benefits
  40. 40. Photo credit NRCS Concerns
  41. 41. Photo credit NRCS Knowledge and Action
  42. 42. Photo credit NRCS Knowledge and Action
  43. 43. Photo credit NRCS Soil Health and Rented Land
  44. 44. Quotes from In-Depth Interviews Basically, to hold the soil and to help build biological activity, to feed that biological activity that's in the soil. Things that we don't even understand. I think we're just on the tip of beginning to understand all the things that are going on below the surface. And, along with that, the economic benefits of that is, if you're holding that soil and you're banking these nutrients, and letting them, especially nitrogen…release for the following year's crop versus going to the nitrate form and just going on down through our water systems and down to wherever it ends up, in the Gulf of Mexico. So that ... that's all good and so bottom line is, eventually, I think I'll be able to feel more comfortable with reducing nitrogen rates, you know. And that turns into less cash out of my pocket…(IN farmer)
  45. 45. Quotes from In-Depth Interviews Building tilth in the soil, I think…to get more roots growing biodiversity in that soil…build carbon in soil, that's going to be the main thing that a farmer's going to say….how can I make that soil more resilient or able to handle the stresses that...whether it's a dry stress or...too much rain or something like that, you know. By having that structure and those roots there and...and holding on to that soil and maybe, hold on to more nutrients through that, generally, dead period of the year in Iowa where there's a lot of dead material out here, you know…if we can keep those loose nutrients out of our water and use them to build organic matter, instead of them, then that'll be a plus.” (IA farmer)
  46. 46. Quotes from In-Depth Interviews See, you talk about earthworms…people look at you screwy, but over the last two years when I dig in that ground looking for the seed to see how deep it is…I used to take my pliers because it was so packed. Now I can just take my hand and it’s firm and you always find earthworms. To not move that ground, to keep the tilth, and let them do the tilling for me…this earth worm thing, you’ve seen seagulls following behind the anhydrous sprayers in the fall, you know what are they doing? They’re eating our tillers. We don’t have any seagulls following our planters anymore in our fields. You tell that to some people and they look at you like you’re a fruit loop…we went out there after a rain and you walk in that ground and its firm in the middle and you find these leaves partially – last year’s corn partially pulled down in these holes – it’s worms doing that. You actually stand there when it’s quiet and you step, you can hear the worms going down. You think I’m goofy don’t you? (IA farmer)
  47. 47. Summary: Soil Health Indicator Rating • Few Iowa farmers rated their soil health indicators as very good or excellent • Many were unfamiliar with key terms, or did not know how their soils rated • Lots of room for improvement Photo credit NRCS
  48. 48. Summary: Awareness, Attitudes, Action • Large majority of Iowa farmers believe that healthy soils have productivity benefits, can reduce input needs, and can lead to drought resilience • They are also concerned about the potential negative impacts of pesticides, heavy equipment, on soil health Photo credit NRCS
  49. 49. Summary: Awareness, Attitudes, Action • Most Iowa farmers have heard more about soil health in last few years • They want to learn more, and understand that NRCS is a good source of soil health information Photo credit NRCS
  50. 50. Summary: Awareness, Attitudes, Action • Most Iowa farmers have been paying more attention to soil health, believe they understand the concept well, and have taken steps to improve soil health on the land they farm • But nearly half were unsatisfied or unsure about the effectiveness of their soil health management plans Photo credit NRCS
  51. 51. Conclusions • Soil health is beginning to resonate with farmers • Farmers who are into soil health can be highly passionate about their efforts and results • Soil health can be an “integrative concept” that helps farmers think holistically • It can help bridge short-term and long-term thinking because farmers perceive that the primary benefits accrue to them and the next generations • The practices that lead to healthy soils-no till, cover crops-can also result in major societal benefits: soil building, water quality, carbon sequestration, etc. Multiple-Benefit Prairie Conservation Strips. Photo courtesy of A.
  52. 52. Thank you! Multiple Benefit Prairie Conservation Strips. Photo courtesy of A. McDonald
  53. 53. Evaluation – Strategic • An estimated two- to three fold increase in cover cropping systems (now at more than 10 million acres according to NASS). • SARE/CTIC: 38 percent increase in cover crop usage between 2012-2013. • Practical Farmers of Iowa: Aerial seeders in Iowa reported a 200 percent increase in cover crop seeding business from 2010 to 2013. • In some areas of the country, demand for cover crop seed (a key indicator in the adoption of soil health management practices) has exceeded supply. • But most importantly… 0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 1948 1961 1964 1969 1971 1973 1975 1977 1979 1981 1983 1985 1987 1989 1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 NumberofRespondents Year
  54. 54. Impact on the environment: • Annually, thanks to the campaign’s success (and the work of farmers who have implemented soil health management systems on these 10 million acres of cropland), the U.S. is (conservatively)…  Saving 9 million tons of top soil;  Sequestering 1 million pounds of carbon; and  Reducing nitrogen loss to rivers and lakes by 150 million pounds—annually. • And the campaign is positioned to harvest even more benefits in the months, years and generations ahead.
  55. 55. But our work is not done… April 28, 2014, Kansas August, 2014, Lake Erie
  56. 56. Reaching out better & further… • Existing target audiences – Employees – Partners/Ag retailers – Later adopters • New Audiences – Foodies/Consumers – Enviros – Food processors/retailers – Educators
  57. 57. Non-operator landowner outreach direct mail pilot project: (IN, IL, IA)
  58. 58. Bounce-back card to receive “Soil Health Information Starter Kit.” After three mailings… 8 percent reply rate 6 percent undeliverable rate
  59. 59. Podcasts… Check out the menu, and pick up an order of soil health audio “to go.”
  60. 60. Hot off the press…
  61. 61. Quiz takers’ from more than 40 countries… Australia Austria Brazil Cameroon Canada Chile China Columbia Costa Rica Czech Republic Ecuador France Germany Greece Guatemala Hong Kong India Indonesia Ireland Israel Italy Japan Kenya Malaysia Mexico Morocco Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nigeria Norway Pakistan Philippines Poland Serbia Singapore South Africa Spain Uganda United Kingdom Venezuela
  62. 62. The next generation…
  63. 63. New radio PSAs
  64. 64. Out of home… Via social media, 6,000 users helped us determine our 2015 posters…
  65. 65. Dr. Laura Danly Speaking for the stars AND the soil… Curator at the Griffith Observatory & frequent guest on The Universe.
  66. 66. Video PSAs • Television spots • 30-second TV PSA • 15-second TV PSAs (3) • 90-second web PSA
  67. 67. A sneak peek at one of the TV ads…
  68. 68. “The art of land-doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.” – Aldo Leopold
  69. 69. Improving Soil Health: The conservation opportunity of a lifetime United States Department of Agriculture is an equal opportunity provider and employer. Ron Nichols, Public Affairs Officer USDA-NRCS

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