From Soil Quality to a Soil Health Strategic Plan
Promoting the Soil Quality Concept
The Virginia NRCS agronomy team has been aggressively promoting what was then known as the “soil quality” concept since 2004. This is the idea that building soil organic matter and biological activity can meaningfully improve soil function in conventional farming systems and in turn lead to a cascade of on and off farm benefits.
State Soil Health Initiative
In 2013, Virginia NRCS kicked off a formal soil health promotional effort that is still going strong. From the beginning, our focus has been to convince clients and partners to join us in consistently promoting four core soil health principles expressed in 12 carefully-chosen words. Our “Unlock the Secrets” circle of soil health principles graphic was a key part of the initial campaign.
Soil Health Strategic Plan
In May 2020, we finalized the current Virginia NRCS Strategic Plan for Soil Health Promotion & Implementation, which formalizes many of our existing strategies and outlines current priorities for state-level soil health activities. Excerpts provided below offer an overview of our core strategies and guiding principles.
Use the link below to download this 12-page document.
Core Soil Health Strategies
- Partnership. From the start, Virginia NRCS recognized that leveraging partnerships was key to maximizing our soil health education, demonstration, and implementation impact.
Two guiding principles we have explicitly embraced since starting our Virginia NRCS soil health campaign: “keep it simple” and “seeing is believing” – both of which are illustrated by our focus on farmer testimonials and hands-on demonstrations.
- Inclusion & Empowerment. One of our guiding principles has been to focus on what soil health stakeholders have in common rather than on where they differ – something we call our “common ground” approach.
We also emphasize “learning from each other” – a participatory approach with farmers serving as speakers at the front of the room rather than passive listeners sitting in the back. We want farmers and field-level agency staff to feel empowered and to actively participate in “unlocking the secrets” of how to improve soil health on their farms.
- Innovation. Soil health is no longer new in Virginia. In order to keep attracting and holding the interest of our target audiences, we need to keep evolving, adjusting our advice and messages, and delivering that information in innovative ways.
There is no faster way to discredit a soil health sales pitch than to oversell it – for example, by promising farmers that they will see a near-term economic payback from planting a cover crop. Notwithstanding the above, we must also recognize the need to include in our soil health promotion and programs an element of inspiration. Conservation has always been in part about an ethic and assigning value to something greater than short-term economic returns. NRCS exists in part to help foster that ethic.
Soil Health Priorities
- Innovative staffing & capacity building. Virginia NRCS is pivoting to making creative staffing and capacity building a cornerstone of our soil health strategy.
- Energizing and expanding Virginia Soil Health Coalition. A priority for Virginia NRCS is to help partners hire a Virginia Soil Health Coalition Coordinator who will help energize and expand the organization while enhancing communication and coordination among members.
- Moving beyond no-till and cover crops: From soil health to “integrated conservation agronomy.” We have now coined the term “Integrated Conservation Agronomy” (ICA) to describe a more holistic approach that emphasizes “systems, not shortcuts” and coordinated layering of multiple practices over time to maximize implementation of all soil health principles. We intend to use our new partnership-funded, NRCS-embedded staff to help promote the ICA term and concept.
- Starting with the end in mind. Our choice of soil health assessment methods should be guided by the intended use of the assessment results. This means our first question should always be: “Why are we assessing soil health?”
- It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the understanding. What will it take to achieve greater understanding of soil health benefits? Regardless of how good the methods might be, soil health testing alone is unlikely to get us there. We also need a framework of information and education to accompany that testing.
- Avoiding measurement without meaning. Our emphasis should be above all on avoiding “measurement without meaning.” This is another example of the need to focus not just on test methods and numbers, but also on understanding and meaning.
Examples of Current State-Level Projects and Initiatives
ICA Staffing Pilot. After years of planning, Virginia NRCS is now partnering with Virginia Tech to pilot an innovative, partnership-based “Integrated Conservation Agronomy” (ICA) staffing strategy. The goal: To build the capacity of both organizations to provide quality soil health and conservation agronomy technical assistance to farmers and graziers.
The pilot includes establishing a statewide on-farm mentoring and demonstration network. Multiple farmers are now formally engaged as mentors and providing assistance to other growers managing both cropland and grassland.
The pilot also involves recruiting Virginia-Tech employed, NRCS-embedded, grant-funded conservation agronomy staff. The project’s first partnership conservation agronomist has been embedded with NRCS since Sept. 2021.
Virginia Soil Health Coalition. The Virginia Soil Health Coalition (VSHC) is a loose alliance of organizations established in 2013 as part of the Virginia NRCS soil health initiative launch. Strengthening the coalition is one of our top priorities for promoting soil health and achieving greater coordination and consistency among Virginia partners.
Working in collaboration with many partners including Virginia NRCS, Virginia Tech hired Mary Sketch-Bryant as the first full-time VSHC director and partner coordinator in January 2021. The effectiveness and impact of VSHC has increased dramatically since she joined the team. Virginia NRCS is currently working closely with VSHC on a number of projects, including a major soil health educational initiative aimed at agency staff across Virginia.
Extending Our Reach with 4TheSoil. Since our formal soil health initiative began in 2013, Virginia NRCS has focused on building consensus around four simply-stated soil health management principles.
The success of those efforts is illustrated in Virginia Cooperative Extension's agency-neutral campaign launched in 2021 to further publicize and promote these same principles. In true partnership fashion, NRCS has embraced the "4TheSoil" project. We not only helped design the core 4TheSoil graphic but are now using it across Virginia in our soil health promotion efforts. Please visit the 4TheSoil project website to pledge that you are also “4” the soil!
For more information about the plans or projects above, please contact these state-level specialists: