Expanding the Soil to Society Pipeline Strategy

Woman holding whisk in a bowl in a research lab
Daun Park working on her research project with Dr. Girish Ganjyal on the influence of alternative grain flour in pancake quality. Photo: Kaitlynn Davis

Soil to Society is not just a grant, but a strategy of thinking that addresses gaps in current knowledge and between research disciplines. The pipeline strategy traces the flow of nutrients from agricultural systems and food production to human consumption, culminating in the synthesis of more sustainable agricultural management strategies and healthy, affordable food products to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities. It is a novel way of thinking, especially within traditionally separate research areas in academia. For this reason, one of the main objectives of this Soil to Society grant is to move forward this strategy of thought by introducing students, teachers, and farmers to the pipeline strategy in an educational setting.

Secondary Student Instruction

Utilizing an inquiry-based instruction method that places students in research groups to come up with solutions to real life problems, project researchers are developing a curriculum to be integrated into high school classrooms around the state. Inquiry-based instruction in school-based agricultural education has been shown to increase content knowledge and higher-order thinking skills of students, while contributing to more favorable attitudes about agriscience. The Soil to Society curriculum will emulate the pipeline strategy, organizing students into interdisciplinary groups and tasking them with a large-scale problem together. As students move between their groups, they will collect information and develop potential solutions to the assigned problem. The completed curriculum will be made publicly available through the Soil to Society website and social media channels once completed.

To further involve high school age students in the Soil to Society project, research and project leadership offered a summer research opportunity beginning summer of 2023. This research opportunity invited high school students to work in one of the different areas in the Soil to Society project on research and extension projects. In its inaugural year, five students completed research projects in the soil and cropping systems, plant breeding, and food science teams. They completed a one-credit course in addition to their research project, and their experience culminated in a poster presentation at the summer research opportunity poster symposium. Graduate student and internship manager Kaitlynn Davis said, “Anna [Soil to Society Education Team Lead] and I received great feedback from SAS members, interns, and community members about the poster symposium. We are currently working on developing plans for the summer of 2024 and are excited to see success with future interns.” You can learn more about their individual projects on our Soil to Society website. One student is currently in the process of publishing their research in collaboration with their research mentor, which is an exciting outcome from our first year of the internship!

People talking in a hallway
Our summer research opportunity interns presented their projects at the poster symposium in Pullman, WA. Photo: Kaitlynn Davis

Teacher Professional Development

To increase teaching familiarity and confidence with our secondary student curriculum, educational personnel will implement teacher professional development workshops to support curriculum integration. These workshops increase teachers’ knowledge in agriculture and health related topics, increasing their confidence and therefore likelihood of integrating the Soil to Society curriculum into their existing agricultural education plan. Once developed, teacher professional development workshops will also be offered at national conferences, including the National Association of Agricultural Educators and National Science Teachers Association conferences.

Post-Secondary Student Learning Opportunities

Project Director, Dr. Kevin Murphy, and Co-PI, Dr. Pablo Monsivais, teamed up to develop a new major offered to Washington State University students beginning Fall of 2023. This Human Nutrition and Food Systems major allows students to study the connection between disciplines in the Soil to Society pipeline, bridging the gap between the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) and the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. This new program will allow students to think broadly about key societal issues, such as the rise in chronic diseases, and apply holistic approaches to address contributing factors in the agricultural sciences, food sciences, and human health disciplines.

Farmer Training

Viva Farms, an incubator farm in the Skagit Valley and partnering organization on the Soil to Society grant, is spearheading much of the hands-on farmer education occurring throughout the grant. Viva Farms is a unique asset to this project, educating farmers on grain production, selling products to diverse markets within the community, and partnering with local farm to school programs to integrate the education, school garden, and food service components required for successful adoption of grant-created food products.

They are also challenging their beginning and incubator farmers to think about food production in the context of the whole food system; including where their raw products will go when they leave the farm and the healthfulness of the food they’re producing. Throughout the past three years of this grant, they have engaged farmers in a variety of trainings around the inclusion of small grains and legumes into their cropping systems.

Curricula for the Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture, a program targeted at very beginning farmers entering into the Viva Farms incubator program, was updated to reflect various considerations in incorporating diverse grains and legumes into crop planning and the roles these crops play in crop rotation and diversification of production, as well as markets. Excitingly, farmers within the incubator program have expressed interest in learning more about grain and legume production and there are plans to develop a series of workshops to further educate farmers on these topics in the coming year.

Soil to Society

The Soil to Society grant is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program. The SAS Soil to Society project involves over 20 researchers from Washington State University and Johns Hopkins University and evaluators from Kansas State University to improve the soil quality where these crops are grown, develop more nutritional varieties and products that can be brought to market, and evaluate the impact of these foods on human health. By bringing together soil scientists, plant breeders, food scientists, and health researchers, the Soil to Society grant crosses disciplines to develop holistic agricultural management strategies and healthy, affordable food products to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities.

This is the last post in the Soil to Society series, which explored the work of each project team, highlighted the different areas of collaboration across disciplines that work this project toward its common goal of creating a healthier food system and human population. We hope you enjoyed hearing about the novel research occurring by WSU and our partnering organizations through this grant. To continue following along, follow us on social media or subscribe to our quarterly newsletter.