Review: 1st Annual Soil Health Innovations Conference -NCAT ATTRA

Updated: Mar 21

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to share my virtual zoom experience at the 1st NCAT ATTRA Soil Health Innovations Conference. I admit, I had little idea what this conference was about. I'll start with, my mind was totally blown in a similar way as NC State Vermicomposting conference. I want to share both some inspirations and resources and some areas I think could use some more innovation.

The Setting

The conference mainly had large (1000's of acres) and small sustainable agricultural producers ranging from cattle, sheep, corn, cotton, market farmers, etc along with scientists from NCAT and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. The big themes of conference were soil biology, no or little till practices, cover crops, and carbon.

There were over 600 (!!!) people attending the virtual sessions over this past Monday and Tuesday. Despite the virtual settings the excitement and camaraderie was still palpable.

The Speakers and Inspirations

ATTRA (Ms. Doesken informed this doesn't actually stand for anything anymore) did an amazing job selecting keynote speakers like long time animal behaviorist Dr. Fred Provenza from Utah State and Cindy Daley from CSU Chico Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems. The bulk of the talks were actually from farmers who collected their own data and shared their own successes. One after the other they show that by following these sustainable, regenerative practices they were producing more with less or no chemical inputs/ less water/more resiliency. I found the most inspirational talk given by farmer Rick Clark and cattle rancher Cooper Hibbard from Sieben Livestock. The talks by both Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune and Dr. Kristen Veum from the USDA's ARS were really fantastic as well. I am really excited about their big data analytic program that they are working on making accessible to farmers.

I don't think the presentations will be made public. If they are, I'll be sure to post the links as all the talks were worth listening to. I learned so much. I have a better understanding of how techniques and ideas like no-till, cover crops, crop diversity, soil carbon / biology, and animals all roll into a comprehensive sustainable, productive system. For now I'll leave you with some screenshots I took of what I thought to be important.

There were two US Senators there from Montana, Senators Boozman and Tester. Interestingly Senator Tester is the only sitting US Senator that is also a farmer. I also watched Senator Tester take a position on an issue and then talk himself into the opposing side. After witnessing a politician do that, I'd say anything is possible.

Grumblings about "Land Grant Universities"

I also heard a lot of grumbling about why these communities and ideas haven't given support from "land grant institutions." I fully admit, I had no idea what a land grant institution exactly was other than some kind of university. Turns out if you're not completely ignorant like myself, it's putting the fact that some of the largest most profitable state universities such as MIT and Cornell are land grant universities with this expressed mission:

"The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering (though "without excluding...classical studies") as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on a liberal arts curriculum"

This was a big "wow I'm glad I'm here virtually" moment, and didn't ask anyone at the conference what a land grant university was. It certainty shapes the conversation differently than "academic universities or "places of higher education" as I would say to describe these places.

Between the two ag. conferences I've attended, I have seen agricultural producers come up with their own sustainable solution, prove they yield more, cost less, and are better for the environment than current practices. At the same time, they [you] are generating better data, and doing better practical experimentation on agricultural practices than the vast majority of academics that are tasked to support them in this effort.

This disconnect was recognized as a problem several times, and most of the barriers came down to Big Ag., politics, and how research money is granted. Companies want to keep selling farmers fertilizer and pesticides... I know you guys understand this better than myself. University researchers and new ideas are usually limited by what the government decides is worth researching. It is hard to ask for money to research a topic that doesn't exist or isn't popular among "main stream" scientists. It's really a systemic problem that isn't helped by the typical geographic separation as well.

Coming from two public universities (not land grant), I just want to say that ag. producers should be upset about not receiving enough support. You guys are the solution to so many different problems ranging from food supply resiliency, climate change, human nutrition, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and restoration of national and local "community" every dollar invested would pay back several fold. I think it is the biggest missed opportunity for "academia" at large, land grant or not.

Where was Vermicompost DNA sequencing?

Well if you've read this far you'll realize there are two things I haven't mentioned that this blog is about: Vermicompost and DNA sequencing. There was nobody there promoting vermicompost that I "saw" at least. A farmer who owned 20 horses asked if there were ways to compost it. I was the only one recommending vermicomposting. There was talk of microbial amendments to add with seeds or to the soil... and I had to nudge the speaker to mention vermicompost. The speaker was Dan Kittredge of Bionutrient Farms who actually later said when asked about manure use said "the only manure he uses on [his] farm is worm manure." People there are very pro vermicompost, but this conference needs vermicompost producers and experts there telling their stories, showing it's value, and demonstrating how it can be incorporated into sustainable farming practices.

As for DNA sequencing, I asked if there were any plans to incorporate it more broadly into the set of techniques used to understand soil health. Apparently the current thought is: DNA sequencing is not ready yet for application. I really hope, I can demonstrate the value not of DNA sequencing, but of microbial ecology. I can demonstrate it's value not only scientifically, but as a way to monitor, promote, make decisions about your product or practice. So get ready for some lessons in microbial ecology. You won't need to understand technical stuff, just concepts that I think you all already have a great grasp.

And with that I'll leave you with my favorite quotes of the conference...

All soil tests are wrong, but only some are useful. -Robin Kootz

Fail fast, fail forward, and fail cheap - Cooper Hibbard Sieben Live Stock Co. on how to overcome challenges

"We have earthworms big enough to choke a cat fish," - Adam Chappell @cottonplantkid

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