Maintaining and improving soil health is key to preventing soil depletion, ensuring long-term agricultural productivity, and protecting the environment in our region, as well as the ongoing health of the rural economy and regional food security. According to the USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil health is defined as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” A host of indicators are currently available to assess soil health; however, our understanding of the relationship between these indicators and plant production and environmental outcomes is incomplete.
To address these knowledge gaps, better understand linkages, and provide better guidance to stakeholders, we are embarking on the Washington Soil Health Initiative (SHI). This initiative is an ambitious plan that funds research, extension, and demonstration of soil health best management practices through a network of long-term agroecological research and extension (LTARE) sites across Washington state’s diverse agricultural systems.
During the 2019 Legislative Session, the Washington State Legislature generously appropriated $250k as a proviso in both FY20 and FY21 to WSU to initiate the Soil Health Initiative, with specific language requiring WSU to establish the proposed LTARE site at the WSU Mount Vernon Research & Extension Center.
A renewed focus on soil health creates a win-win-win opportunity for farmers, the environment and the general public, and puts the state of Washington in a leadership role nationally. An increased understanding of the linkages between soil health, production, and the environment achieved through the Washington SHI will contribute to several important outcomes:
A baseline assessment of soil health and the tools to monitor and manage it across the diverse agricultural systems in Washington;
Better understanding of the opportunities to improve soil health through changes in management practices; and
Increased adoption of these practices to increase food production and farm profitability and providing important economic and environmental benefits to the state of Washington.
The Soil Health Initiative was developed over many years of work between many partners in the state. Efforts that led to the development of the SHI included Recommendations from a WSU CSANR Advisory Committee Task Force in 2014, a Washington Soil Health Summit in early 2018, a regional Soil Health Conference in 2019, and many other developmental conversations between university, agency, industry, and environmental community partners. Below we’ve included a number of documents that have contributed to the formation of the initiative and the methods we will employ to accomplish our goals.
Healthy Soils, Healthy Region Workshop. Event website. March 12-14, 2019. This website is the repository of information from the March 2019 regional Soil Health professional development training opportunity sponsored by USDA Western SARE.
Hills, K., H. Collins, G. Yorgey, A. McGuire, C. Kruger. 2018. Report prepared for the Washington State Potato Commission. Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University. 96 pp. Safeguarding Potato Cropping Systems in the Pacific Northwest Through Improved Soil Health. This report is a comprehensive literature review on the status of soil health research and recommendations for future research for Pacific Northwest potato cropping systems.
Saari, B.R., C.E. Kruger, G.G. Yorgey, L. Michel, W.L. Pan, J. Moore-Kucera, R. Ledgerwood, R. Koenig, and M. Clark. 2018. Washington State 2018 Soil Health Summit Summary Report. Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University, Wenatchee, WA. This is the synthesized summary report from the Washington Soil Health Summit held in February 2018.
Robertson, P.G. et al. 2008. BioScience 58:7 pp 640-645. Long-term Agricultural Research: A Research, Education, and Extension Imperative. The linked paper is a review article led by the long-time l Research Leader, Phil Robertson, for the Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research site – the only NSF LTER focused on agricultural systems. The article describes the importance of long-term experiments as a basis for answering critical agroecological questions like soil health.