Highlighting Innovations in Soil Health

April 14, 2021
Credit: NCAT

On March 8-9, 2021, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) held the first Soil Health Innovations conference. Originally scheduled last year as an in-person conference in Montana, the conference was postponed due to COVID and expanded as a nationwide virtual conference with 675 participants. The live stream event included speakers and panels, as well as virtual booths for exhibitors and student posters. Real-time chats allowed participants to network with the producers, industry professionals, educators, and students who are at the cutting edge of soil health across the country.

“Soil health is a bedrock of climate-smart agriculture, and NCAT wanted to provide a forum for conversations and innovative solutions to improve soils,” said Steve Thompson, NCAT’s Executive Director. “There are so many great ideas being discussed around this topic and we felt it was important to bring all the dimensions of soil health together under one conference umbrella to highlight innovations in the field, on the range, in research, in the policy arena and the private marketplace.”

Recognizing the importance of the topic and the expertise of invited speakers, Western SARE sponsored the conference and provided 9 scholarships to producers and ag professionals. Regional Coordinator Clayton Marlow helped open the first day of the conference, and both he and Deputy Regional Coordinator Irene Grimberg participated in the planning committee.

 “Western SARE’s participation in this conference was beneficial through shared efforts to organize and foster an exchange between experienced producers and scientists. The conference also provided an excellent platform for elevating awareness of Western SARE programs and educational materials. The conference was well worth our time and effort,” said Marlow.

Focusing on innovations and technologies that serve to address the future of sustainable agricultural through better soil health practices, the goal of the conference was to create a learning platform for agriculture producers and educators that incorporates present and future concepts, techniques, and practical applications. These include readapted methods, new technologies, groundbreaking research, market-based demand, or innovative social approaches that encourage and expand improved soil health.


Fred Provenza and kicked off the conference with his talk “How Palates Link the Health of Soil and Plants with Livestock and Humans.” Provenza is one of the founders of BEHAVE, an international network of scientists, ranchers, farmers, and land managers committed to integrating behavioral principles with local knowledge to enhance environmental, economic, and cultural values of rural and urban communities. His presentation centered on the observation that foodscapes with complex mixtures of grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees are nutrition centers and pharmacies with vast arrays of phytochemicals. 

Said Provenza, “Nothing is more important for health through nutrition than landscapes with a variety of plants for herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores below and above ground.”

Senator Jon Tester (MT) was closed out the conference, focusing on the importance of soil health in raising a high quality product; the need to adapt to climate change; and NCAT’s work in helping family farms and repopulating rural America. Senator Tester is the only farmer in the Senate and he operates an organic farm near Big Sandy, MT. 

He noted that there are new ideas that help with climate change and also help the farmers and ranchers make more money. “If we don’t invest money in research, and if we don’t look for opportunities that are out there that people in the business of agriculture are doing and having success with sinking carbon into the soils, then we’re not leaving our kids the kinds of opportunities that our parents and grandparents left us.” He believes that agriculture research needs to focus building up soils on family farms, not always a new input.

Senator John Boozman, Arkansas Ranking Member of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Ferd Hoefner, long time policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition discussed federal policy options for promoting soil health and climate solutions in agriculture.  Senator Boozman stated that there is a need to educate both the public and members of Congress about the importance of improving the quality of soil health. 

“No one does a better job than our farmers in doing their best in taking care of the resources that they have. They deserve a pat on the back for what they’ve done in the past and what they will do in the future,” said Senator Boozman.

In addition to the keynote speakers and plenaries, there were multiple workshops in different topic tracks.

What Was Learned

 “Our goal was to provide important information to producers and agricultural trainers, and we easily met that. Every one of our speakers is a recognized expert in his or her topic area, and they were all engaging and informative,” Thompson said. “We were impressed by the level of conversation in the chat boxes during presentations, indicating how involved the attendees were in the presentations.”

Rebeca Nolan, Dusty Hound Farms in Idaho, benefitted from receiving a scholarship and participating in the conference, stating “My biggest take away from the conference has to be that regenerative farmers are essentially citizen scientists. There is no one textbook or one solution that fits all producers. I'm fascinated by the world beneath our feet. I now feel empowered to start my own forage management and grazing system.”

Dr. Nat Tuivavalagi, an agronomy researcher at the College of Micronesia-FSM, Pohnpei and one of the scholarship recipients, has brought the teachings back to the Pacific Islands and has plans to submit funding proposals to research soil health.

“I have started sharing some of the presentations with colleagues here in Pohnpei and intend to share this with a wider audience from other Pacific islands. Some of the findings and ideas discussed in the conference already resonate well with some of the indigenous people in the Pacific islands, as some of our indigenous communities have banned the use of fertilizers and other agrochemicals for years. The conference also provided hints on chemical-free practices that we could follow to sustain and even improve soil fertility.”

Another scholarship recipient, Dr. Zackary Jones, Director of Research at the Rocky Mountain Soil Stewardship in Colorado, also benefitted from his participation.

“I really enjoyed this conference because of the focus on the producers and their willingness to share their knowledge and data. I never really understood how no-till and cover crops were combined to not only enrich soil health but also nutrients. To see video of it in action and the scientific and economic data behind it really made me a believer. “

Jones wrote a blog post about the conference that he says is mainly followed by producers.

Feedback from the participants has very positive, both for the conference itself and for the great speakers. Some of the comments include:

  • I look forward to attending next year!
  • I learned so much and gained so much hope knowing all these great folks are out there showing us the way!
  • I thought this was the best organized conference I have "attended" in the digital world. Very nice job. Looking forward to the next one.

Missed the Conference?

NCAT will be re-opening registration at the regular registration rates, and those who register will have access to all the recorded sessions, as well as access to the exhibitor booths, student posters, and sponsor information. The materials and recordings will only be available to registered users until September.

And NCAT is already planning for the next conference, given the broad interest and many dimensions of information that can be shared.

Western SARE Administrative Council Executive Committee member Kent Wasson reminds us, “Our soils’ health is of the first and foremost importance to producers of all commodities. Soil health and regenerative agriculture work towards those values. Thank you to everyone who works to improve soil health.”

Topics: Cover Crops, Crop Production, Crop Rotation, Intercropping, Multiple Cropping, Soil Quality/Health
Related Locations: West