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A new series within the “Digging In” Blog focuses on collaborations among the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), Universities and other Institutions. One such collaboration is between Soil Health Partnership and Utah State University (USU).

When SHP was being established in 2014, Dr. Matt Yost, now an assistant professor at USU, became connected with SHP while conducting research at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Columbia, Missouri. He served on the Data Analytics Team working closely with other Science Advisory board members and SHP leaders to build a sound soil health research plan and protocols. He had also discussed the idea of opening an opportunity for a university graduate student to work closely with the SHP on a project that would lead to a master’s degree or Ph.D for the student and provide valued added research and data analysis that would benefit SHP growers and funders.

I was introduced to Dr. Yost in January 2018 as I neared the completion of my master’s degree in Plant, Soil and Environmental Science at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. I was looking for an opportunity to study soil science with an experienced soil scientist and we quickly connected as I expressed my interest in soil health and Dr. Yost explained his involvement with SHP. Later, he set up an interview with the SHP’s Field Operations Manager, Jack Cornell and was later offered an opportunity to work with SHP as a collaborative graduate student through Utah State University under Dr. Yost’s supervision.

Soon after starting at USU in June 2018, I took a trip to visit the National Corn Growers Association and SHP headquarters in Chesterfield, Missouri, where I met the devoted staff and learned about their work to move SHP forward. I also attended grower demonstration field days. At the field days I met several SHP growers and field managersJim IsermannAbigail Peterson, and Lisa Kubik were the first SHP field managers I met; their hospitality and warmth made me feel a welcome addition to the SHP family. They also gave me an inside perspective on the importance of connecting with growers and addressing their needs through data analysis and interpretation. I came home impressed with the investment in time and effort the SHP staff and field managers put into collecting and managing soil sampling, data and demonstrations at the field days.

It also became clear that communication with growers is key in organizing an effort to educate and respond to growers’ needs as they begin their journey on the road to building soil health. In conversations with several growers I realized that I personally need to remember the realities of soil health are the stories of these farmers making a living on the land they love. I heard from a farmer who first struggled with cover crops and discontinued them because of the many challenges he faced. After attending a SHP field day, that same farmer decided to give cover crops another try. Understanding how to manage soil health on paper may seem simple, but it is much more complex when put into practice. The SHP field managers and SHP growers showed this farmer firsthand how he can use soil health to make a difference in his operation.

Over the last year, I have been able to organize a research plan and present preliminary analyses at the Soil Health Institute annual summit and the International Soils Meeting that took place earlier this year. As my research has progressed, I have seen the importance of the detailed information on field management collected from SHP growers. Just knowing that there are differences between treated and non-treated is meaningful, yet, that knowledge is more powerful when combined with detailed site metadata on management and environment factors that is available. These data make it possible to find patterns among all the management techniques and environment characteristics across the Partnership and could help us tease out which of those variables is likely to contribute to trending improvement in soil health.

In the next blog, I will elaborate on my research objectives and the task of processing the SHP data in preparation for statistical analysis. I will also give a sneak peek at some of the results that will be detailed in future posts.

Bradley Crookston
Bradley Crookston
Bradley Crookston is a PhD candidate and Graduate Research Assistant at Utah State University.