AgEvidence is a new online dashboard where farmers and soil health experts can access cutting-edge research into the impact of soil health practices in the U.S. Corn Belt. Dr. Steve Wood, Senior Scientist for Agriculture and Food Systems for The Nature Conservancy and AgEvidence project lead, believes the tool gives access to foundational data on soil health that can keep the industry and its stakeholders moving forward together.
“You don’t need to be a scientist at the university with a subscription to the academic journals in order to get the data,” Wood says. “This platform makes sure everyone has the same tools in their toolkit.”
In total, the database includes about 16,000 data points, which come from nearly 300 studies. The studies cover different locations, different measurements, and span a 40-year period.
In order for research to be included in AgEvidence, it must first be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Studies also must be taking real measurements in the field. No modeling or simulated growing systems – like lab- or greenhouse-based studies – are included.
For first-time researchers or someone who isn’t a skilled scientist, AgEvidence distills findings down to a manageable set of insights. For example, the main page of the AgEvidence website curates results related to commonly asked questions like, “Which practices most improve water quality?” or “What’s the impact of conservation tillage?”
“We just wanted to make the data really quickly and readily available for folks who are working on this issue day to day, and want to be able to have easy access to the data in a nice, visual, compelling format,” Wood says.
Learn more from Wood about the AgEvidence tool by tuning into the podcast above and visitwww.agevidence.org to explore the database.
John Mesko: (00:30) Welcome back to The People of Soil Health. My guest today is Senior Scientist for Agriculture and Food Systems for The Nature Conservancy, Dr Steve Wood. In his role, Steve is working to develop cutting-edge science to support soil activities across The Nature Conservancy. He has a highly interdisciplinary background with degrees in ecology, economics, and philosophy, and his specific topical expertise is in soil and ecosystem, ecology, sustainable agriculture, sustainability science, and statistical modeling. Steve, welcome to the podcast.
Steve Wood: (01:07) Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
John Mesko: (01:09) Well, this is a treat for me. I find myself gravitating towards people who have a multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary background. As we said here, some of the things that you focus on in your work is, I think, really central to this discussion around not only the specifics of soil health, but how does soil health and our pursuit of soil health impact things like economics? And how do we measure that, and how do we model that? So it's a real pleasure to talk with you today.
John Mesko: (01:45) And I'm curious, for the listeners that are out there who may not know of your work or know of the specifics of your career, tell us a little bit about how you got to The Nature Conservancy, and your path and your career to this point.
Steve Wood: (02:01) Yeah. It was a little bit of a winding path, but I'd say I've been interested in agriculture since I was a kid. My first job was working on a farm outside of Boston, a kind of small family farm, and it was me and several migrant workers from Jamaica planting and picking in the fields. I think I just got really interested both in agriculture in the United States, but also the international components of it, because of the people that I was working with.
Steve Wood: (02:31) And so I went off to college and studied economics and philosophy, like you said, and then, after that, moved abroad. I was doing agriculture extension in West Africa as part of the Peace Corps, and I felt like I wanted to learn more about just the science of how agriculture works, how soils worked, agronomy, weather, all of that kind of stuff.
Steve Wood: (02:53) And so I went back and did my master's, and I just happened to get a job in a soil science lab and just really got hooked on soils. Found someone who was willing to take a risk on someone in a PhD program who didn't really know much about soils at that point in their career. Yeah, I ended up doing my PhD on soil, soil microbial ecology in farming systems and the impact of different types of cropping systems on how microbes process organic matter.
Steve Wood: (03:21) That was at a time when soils really started to become more popular, I would say, in the mainstream. And, so, The Nature Conservancy started getting interested in soils. It hasn't historically been a big focal area for the organization. So there was an opportunity to do a postdoc project in collaboration with the Yale School of the Environment and The Nature Conservancy. So I did that for a couple of years and then just ended up moving into a permanent position with The Nature Conservancy.
John Mesko: (03:50) Well, I think the winding path you described, it seems like that's a pretty common path, at least the winding part of it, that I have experienced. I know mine has been as well. May be different now than what career paths used to be years ago, but certainly keeps you well-informed and diverse in your perspectives and probably really contributes to a lot of success and job satisfaction at The Nature Conservancy. Tell me a little bit about what you do there on a regular basis.
Steve Wood: (04:19) Sure. I'm part of a small global soil science team in our global programs, and really the role of our global programs at The Nature Conservancy are to support the work that's happening on the ground around the world. So for me, that's a mix of different things. It could be working on some monitoring and evaluation of the impact of our work and going out to the field and taking soil samples and really doing measurements and assessing the effects of what we're doing. In other cases, it could be helping with agenda-setting and strategy development for the organization, trying to bring science and evidence into identifying new areas of work for us, or helping to refine our existing areas of work.
Steve Wood: (05:04) And, in other cases, it involves working with our external partners, whether that's in the public policy sphere or with companies that we work with, other environmental NGOs, and just bringing science to bear in those spaces and trying to make sure that what we're doing at The Nature Conservancy is always adhering to the most solid evidence and science.
John Mesko: (05:27) I appreciate your role in looking at soils from a global perspective. I always feel like here, in the US, we have a combination of... Particularly in the Corn Belt, in the Midwest, the high productivity regions of our country, we have a unique combination of good soils and good weather and good farmers that are working to maximize the outcomes of those things.
John Mesko: (05:54) You can maybe shed some light on this for me. This is my perception, although I have traveled some internationally, but not a lot. And I've always kind of had the perception that what we do here in the United States in terms of trying to advance understanding of soils and soil properties and soil health development really is almost like a testing lab for what can be done in the rest of the world, because I feel like maybe ours are unique or special in some way, that without that connection to the global discussion around how soils improve around the world, and if we're just focusing here in the Midwest, we kind of lose our way. Our compass, I guess. Our moral compass. Because I feel like we are at an advantage to begin with here. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Steve Wood: (06:42) I agree. I mean, I think in agriculture in general, a lot of the innovations that happen in the US are innovations that make their ways into other markets. Part of that's just maybe the innovative nature of farmers in the US, or I think part of it is also due to the fact that a lot of big global companies are based in the US. It's a large part of their supply chain. You know, it's an important market for a lot of companies, and so they really look to the US, I think, for innovation.
Steve Wood: (07:14) I've seen that a bunch with some of our international programs, where as the soil health conversation has really taken off in the United States, it's started to filter into other countries, and some of those countries are really starting to take up the language around soil health. Which isn't to minimize the role that other countries play too, you know, certainly in, like, dry land farming, for instance. Australia is playing a very important role in innovating practices around conservation agriculture.
Steve Wood: (07:41) So there's certainly a lot of other countries that are doing really important innovations too, but definitely the US is playing an important role.
John Mesko: (07:48) And there's a lot of room for improvement around the world. So when we make small adjustments, in some places we can see some big, big advantages, big results. So I know that one of the projects there at The Nature Conservancy is AgEvidence. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Steve Wood: (08:08) AgEvidence, it's a website where you can go and access all of the cutting-edge science about the impact of soil health practices in the US Corn Belt. And what it's really designed to do is to be a portal into the scientific data.
Steve Wood: (08:26) We felt like, in our work, it's so hard to know about all of the science that's out there. There's so much research being done, even in an area that's a fairly narrow geographic area, like the US Corn Belt. There's just so much happening at all of the different land grants and whatnot. So we felt like even, as experts in the fields, we didn't really know all of the articles that were coming out and what they were saying.
Steve Wood: (08:53) So we felt like one of the problems that can create is, then you have folks who are experts, but who are maybe drawing on different bodies of evidence to inform their opinions. And so you're not getting people talking past each other, but they just kind of have different tools in the toolkit, to a certain extent. So what we wanted to do is build a platform where everyone kind of had the same foundational data that was right there, a set of papers, and that anyone could access. You didn't need to be a scientist at a university that had a subscription to the academic journals in order to get the data.
Steve Wood: (09:34) So the work that we've really done is to comb through all those papers for you and pull out the data and visualize them on a website. So what you can do is you can just go to the website, and you can select pairs of practices and outcomes. So for example, conservation tillage, or reduced tillage and water quality. You can choose that combination. And then what you get, it would pop up on the screen, just a chart that shows the effect of conservation tillage or no-till, or whichever tillage practice you might be considering, compared to conventional tillage, and what's the impact on nutrient loss or erosion and things like that.
John Mesko: (10:18) So for the user, from the user's perspective on this, given the example that you provided there, they're able then to access, not one or two papers that are discussing water quality and tillage, but how many? Hundreds of papers? Or how big is the database?
Steve Wood: (10:37) All in all, the database has about 16,000 data points, and those data points come from a few hundred studies. So a single study can have different locations in it, and different measurements, so that's why those numbers are different. And then those studies come from 1980 until the present, so it spans a 40 year period.
John Mesko: (11:00) Can someone look at changes over time in the example that you gave?
Steve Wood: (11:04) Yes, because all of these studies are going to have a length associated with their experiment, and so if you go on the tool, there's a little menu bar at the top of the screen where you can select the length of studies to include in the filtering of the data.
Steve Wood: (11:21) So just running with this tillage and water quality example. The tillage studies run up until like 20-something years for a length of study. So you can just filter out only the long-term studies, if you wanted to know the long-term benefit, and then vice versa. If you just want to know what's likely to happen in the first couple of years of switching to a no-till system, then you could filter it for the short-term studies, and then it would show you what the results are.
John Mesko: (11:49) This sounds like a dream come true for someone who, like you say, is not part of the day-to-day research community, is not subscribed to those journals, but has a real strong interest in the details around the data of a specific practice or outcome.
Steve Wood: (12:07) Yeah. We've been getting a lot of positive feedback around that point in particular, is just the access to the data itself is really valuable.
John Mesko: (12:15) How is it determined? How does a paper get into the database? Is it just open to anybody that does something, or are there certain criteria that are involved in determining whether a research project is listed there?
Steve Wood: (12:29) Yeah, it does select some papers and weed out some others. We require that the papers show a real measurement in the field. So that means things like modeling papers that use scientific models to make predictions of what they think will happen. Those are excluded, even though those are really valuable. It excludes laboratory-based studies or greenhouse-based studies that test certain practices in controlled greenhouse settings, and it excludes review papers and what are called meta-analyses or syntheses of multiple papers. We had to do that because we needed to avoid double-counting. All of those reviews, they bring together papers, and so if we included them, then we'd be counting the papers that they're reviewing twice, basically, in the tool.
Steve Wood: (13:21) So again, it's not to say that those types of articles don't have value, but what we really wanted to do is have this focus on really the studies that show the field-scale impact.
Steve Wood: (13:32) And another important criteria is that the studies have to compare the use of a practice to the absence of that practice, or some control. A good example of what would be included would be cover crops compared to a winter fallow. Something that would be excluded would be a single-species cover crop compared to a multi-species cover crop, because then there's no control of the absence of the practice. There are studies... If the study had a control of a winter fallow and then single cover crop and multi-species cover crop, we include all of those data in the tool, but if there's no control, then we filter that out.
John Mesko: (14:14) You know, this sounds really appealing to folks... That it might be really appealing to folks who are kind of like, "Show me the facts. I don't want a prediction, I don't want a model, and I don't want something, like you say, done in the lab. I want to know what's happening on farms. What's happening in, quote unquote, the real world, with regard to these things."
Steve Wood: (14:38) There are some limitations, also, that are important to mention in terms of its applicability to real world, and a lot of that just has to do with the nature of what scientists study. So for instance, it's hard for us to tease apart the impact of multiple coupled practices together, because studies usually study these practices in isolation. They have their controlled, manipulated study where it says, cover crops, no cover crops. Tillage, no-till. So it's hard for us to be able to say the impact of cover crops and reduced tillage and targeted nutrient management, et cetera, over time is such and such, because that's not really how scientists study these.
Steve Wood: (15:24) Then the other thing that tends to be missing from the tool, largely because it's a challenge for science, is really getting at the adaptive nature of these practice regimes and these systems. So if adopting cover crops or reduced tillage has knock-on effects to your fertility management plan or your crop protection pest management plan, it's hard for us to really document those kind of iterative management steps that a farmer would take in a real-world farming operation, because they're kind of sequential through time, whereas what we're doing is just capturing really what the scientific literature is studying in these more controlled type of settings.
John Mesko: (16:14) This is really interesting, and I hope that it's going to be widely promoted. Because I run into people from the science community, I run into farmers, I run into interested consumers, even, who want to learn more. Maybe they have a particular interest in science or they're maybe a scientist in another field, and so they're eager to get into the details of data, but they're not deeply involved in agriculture, let's say.
John Mesko: (16:43) And I'm curious how this was developed. This sounds like amazing technology, to be able to pull information from multiple papers like this. How was this developed? How did it get started? And what was involved in bringing it to life?
Steve Wood: (16:59) There was a working group that started, I think in 2016, called the Managing Soil Carbon Working Group, and it was a group out of the Science for Nature and People Partnership, which is a partnership of TNC, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.
Steve Wood: (17:25) The goal of that Science for Nature and People Partnership program is to bring together people from diverse sectors and backgrounds to synthesize data to try to address real-world problems. And so we were part of the soil carbon or the soils working group, and one of the working group members, Lesley Atwood, was really interested in just trying to assemble as much data as possible on conservation ag practices in the Corn Belt. A couple of the working group members were doing work on Corn Belt-related topics. Like, we had, actually, Nick Goeser, the previous director of Soil Health Partnership, was one of the members of that working group. The Nature Conservancy, we've done a lot of our agriculture work in the Corn Belt, and so that was kind of an important focal area for us. So Lesley started pulling together the data.
Steve Wood: (18:21) What scientists would usually do with this kind of dataset is they'd do some statistical analyses, and they'd write it up as a journal article, as a meta-analysis or a kind of analysis of other studies. We were thinking about doing that, and then we decided that that didn't really hit the target audience of the folks that we wanted to make these data available for and useful for. We felt like the folks who we really wanted to reach with this data were not necessarily the folks who were going out and reading academic journal articles.
Steve Wood: (18:54) I know a lot of my colleagues and folks I work with are interested in tracking what the scientific literature says, but because of the nature of their jobs, just don't have the time to really dig in and read those technical articles. So we wanted to make the data just really quickly and readily available for folks who are working on this issue day-to-day, and just want to be able to have easy access to the data in a nice visual, compelling format that they can just use quickly in their jobs.
Steve Wood: (19:23) So that led us down the route of trying to think about how to visualize and show the data in a new way, which led us into this web platform, which is a new medium for a lot of us who are more used to the typical scientific publication route.
John Mesko: (19:38) Well, and it certainly makes it more accessible and digestible for a broader audience. I'm curious, what are some of the things that you're finding? What are the insights that highlight out of the data that you've got on the site there?
Steve Wood: (19:51) Yeah. I think a couple of the things that we're finding is that there are significant benefits for water quality of both reduced tillage and cover crop use. And this is something that folks have been talking about for a while, but it's really nice to just be able to dive right in and see just how strong the reductions are in nutrient loss and the sediment loss from all of these practices. So that's really, that's really nice.
Steve Wood: (20:20) One of the things that we're finding too is that there's an impact on carbon storage. Soil carbon increases from reduced tillage, no-till, conservation till. That's something that's been debated a bit in the scientific literature about the extent to which that happens. And our results seem to be suggesting that, although there are cases where that doesn't happen, that there are a number of cases where it does happen, especially over longer periods of adoption of conservation tillage practices.
Steve Wood: (20:53) One of the things that we're seeing with cover crops is that there's... Most of the studies on cover crops in the database are fairly short-term, like up to five years, and we're seeing that there's not necessarily strong increases across the board in soil carbon within those initial four to five years, although there are certain types of carbon that do seem to increase over that four to five-year period. But then what the longer-term picture is, is a little bit less clear.
Steve Wood: (21:25) You know, there's so much to explore in the tool, and so many interesting findings. One of the ways that we tried to distill all of the findings down to a more manageable set of insights is we've actually created curated insights on the main page of the tool where you can go. And you don't have to dive into the data, but the insights are framed around key questions that you often will hear people ask or talk about. So things like, what's the impact of agriculture practices on crop performance? Or, which practices most improve water quality? What's the impact of conservation tillage? Things like that.
Steve Wood: (22:10) You can go to the site and click on some boxes that are in the middle of the page, and it'll actually tell you. You can read through some short paragraphs that really tell you in more detail what we're finding, and then provide links to the specific places in the tool where you can see the data that are associated with those particular findings.
John Mesko: (22:29) That sounds fantastic, and I'm sure that a lot of folks listening are going to be interested to check it out and learn more about it. Two questions here, as we think about wrapping up our conversation about this. There's a lot to talk about. There's a lot of things we could go into, but I'm sure there's some people who are listening that might be interested in having their data included on this site. How does that work? How does somebody that has information get it into the AgEvidence site?
Steve Wood: (22:59) Publish the data in a peer-reviewed journal article. That would be the main way to do it. We made that decision to only include the peer-reviewed journal articles because we didn't want to have to create processes of quality control on the data that was kind of a black box, or the user wouldn't really know how we were deciding about what was acceptable data or not. And so by just focusing on the peer-reviewed articles, we put that process of quality control on the process of peer review itself.
Steve Wood: (23:35) So if you publish the data in any kind of peer-reviewed journal that's appearing in the Web of Science database, which is a database that brings together all of the main scientific journals, then we'll see that. We actually have a tool that's running in the background that's automatically regularly searching that database for the keywords for AgEvidence. Whenever there's a certain number of new papers, that tool lets us know, and we can go and download those papers and extract the data from them and then upload the data into AgEvidence.
John Mesko: (24:12) That is what my next question was. How is this going to be maintained going forward? And it sounds like you've got it a little bit on autopilot. That's great.
Steve Wood: (24:20) Yeah. Maintaining the tool does require some time to go through those papers, but the automation has helped. One of the questions that we get asked about quite a bit is, what are the plans for scaling the tool? Whether to new geographies within the US or outside the US, or even including new practices within the current scope. We mainly focus on in-field practices. We don't do data on edge-of-field practices, like buffer strips or things like that.
Steve Wood: (24:52) That's something that we are very interested in doing, to scaling the tool and incorporating new systems. That takes quite a bit of new work, and so we're looking for opportunities and resources to do that, and hopefully we'll be able to do that. But for right now, we're focused just maintaining the tool for the current focal area.
John Mesko: (25:11) That's great. So if a researcher or somebody out there in the community that knows of a paper that they'd like to be included... It sounds like they don't need to necessarily contact you. You'll see it if it's in the database of articles.
Steve Wood: (25:26) Yeah. But they might be looking through the tool and they might know a paper that they think should be there that that's not there, when they look at the list of papers, and if that's the case then they can let us know. We set up an email address, which is . Folks can email that email address and just say that they are wondering why a particular paper is not included. We can go back through our list of papers and we can let them know why we might've excluded it, if we did exclude it, or if it's something that we missed in our search, then we can put it into the pipeline and then review it and consider it for inclusion in the tool.
John Mesko: (26:06) Well, and that is why I have waited to ask you this question till the very end, because I don't want one of our listeners to be leaving our podcast to go explore this tool, because it sounds very enticing and I'm sure there's people that want to get in. How does somebody find this tool? What's the website?
Steve Wood: (26:24) To go to the tool, it's real easy. Just go to agevidence.org. So just one word, AgEvidence. If you wanted a little bit more information about how to use the tool, we have a landing page at The Nature Conservancy, which is nature.org/agevidence. And, if you went to that page, there's an FAQ document. There's also a link to a video that walks you through, in about five minutes, how to use all of the different features of the tool. There's a link to a recent webinar that we did about the tool, just talking about why we built it, how it works, answering some questions about it. So all that information you can find on the landing page at The Nature Conservancy, which is nature.org/agevidence. But to just go to the tool itself, it's agevidence.org.
John Mesko: (27:14) That's fantastic, Steve, and this has been really interesting. I wish we had a little more time. Hopefully we can have you back to get into some more of the findings and insights that are being discovered out there. Appreciate this conversation, and really, really appreciate the partnership that The Nature Conservancy has with the Soil Health Partnership. We have, as you know, worked with your organization across our area of expertise in the Midwest, and continue to look for ways to connect. This is another great, great outcome of the work that you're doing, and so appreciate you sharing them with us today.