Soil health workshop teaches from the ground up

Kirsten Kurtz
Jenn Thomas-Murphy
Kirsten Kurtz leads a workshop as part of the Cornell Soil Health Team.

More than 50 participants from across the U.S. and as far away as South Africa and Colombia visited Cornell to learn basic concepts and management strategies to increase soil health at a workshop on campus Aug. 12-15.

The workshop was hosted by the Cornell Soil Health Team, a coalition of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty and scientists who focus on identifying soil health problems, developing solutions and providing a soil health educational program for New York state, the Northeast and beyond.

“The goal is to connect stakeholders to relevant academic research and to provide guidance and leadership in soil health,” said Cornell senior extension associate and workshop organizer Bianca Moebius-Clune. The program provides hands-on soil health evaluation and management training for people who work directly with farmers. Participants visited farms and observed how management practices are applied in the field. In the classroom, they learned about the Cornell Soil Health Assessment and how it helps users understand soil function, and took part in demonstrations of biological, chemical and physical properties of healthy and unhealthy soils.

Since the early 2000s, Cornell’s soil health initiative has grown to become a multidisciplinary team of faculty and staff from multiple Cornell departments and extension, consulting, nonprofit, conservation district and Natural Resources Conservation Service partners. A soil health train-the-trainer workshop was offered in 2009 and 2010, and after a four-year hiatus, the workshop is back thanks to new grants.

“As an outreach program that connects Cornell researchers, resources, and research-based solutions with real-world needs and problems, the program is the embodiment of Cornell’s land-grant mission,” said Moebius-Clune.

This year’s workshop had the largest attendance to date. Participants included representatives from industry, consultants, conservation workers, academic researchers, entrepreneurs and farmers.

Participant William Urbanowicz of Spectrum Analytic in Washington Court House, Ohio, a firm that analyzes soil samples for farmers, said he was happy the workshop provided in-depth training in Cornell Soil Health Assessment methods. Using Cornell’s facilities as a model, he is considering adopting and implementing some of these techniques at Spectrum.

Given a soil health assessment and background of a local farm, participants worked in groups to develop a tailor-made management action plan to improve soil health while observing financial limitations. Workshop instructor and Cornell extension associate Bob Schindelbeck said team assignment get participants working together to develop creative management solutions.

“These exercises are meant to remind people there is no prescription,” for soil health management,” said Moebius-Clune. “It’s a complex system, so management must be adapted to a field, based on sound science, current soil health status and local considerations.”

Current funding will allow the workshop to continue for one more year, said Moebius-Clune. Soil health is of the utmost importance and programming that puts measurement and management tools in the hands of citizens is pivotal in bettering soil management efforts worldwide, she said.

“We’re not going to be able to feed 9 billion people if we don’t start changing the way we treat our soils,” said Moebius-Clune.

Merry R. Buckley is the education and outreach program coordinator for the Baker Institute for Animal Health and a Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program mentor. Ashley N. Campbell is a Ph.D. student in the field of microbiology and a BEST program participant.

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Melissa Osgood