Innovative Collaborations Boost Soil Health Outreach in Colusa County

⋅ BY LINDA J. FORBES ⋅
University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources

In 2020, agencies and experts in Colusa County came together for a project evaluating winter cover crops (planted in the fall and terminated in late winter or early spring) in annual crop rotations. This project had a large outreach component, and various cover crops were planted each year to demonstrate how well they grew in the region.

Liz Harper (Colusa RCD) and Gerry Hernandez (UCCE Colusa) collected data in cover crop plots.

During the three-year project, the team has significantly increased soil health outreach in the region and built a strong regional collaboration that continues for other projects. The research findings will be published upon completion of analysis.

Funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils Program, the collaboration involved measuring changes in soil health between two cover crop treatments and a fallow control and led to innovation in outreach methods to make healthy soil practices more accessible.

Promoting soil health during a pandemic lockdown was a challenge for the team, comprising Sarah Light, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy farm advisor; Liz Harper, executive director of the Colusa County Resource Conservation District; Davis Ranch; Richter Ag; and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Unable to conduct in-person field days or workshops, Light and Harper created a YouTube channel called “The Soil Health Connection” and produced 29 episodes in English and five in Spanish. These episodes featured soil health experts from around the state. In addition, field demonstrations were recorded including soil sampling demonstrations, a cover crop field tour, soil health field assessments following NRCS protocols, and more.

“The collaboration was effective not only in sharing information on how to manage cover crops, but also allowed us to continue to extend knowledge and do outreach during COVID, when regular in-person programming was not available,” Light said.

Interviewees included researchers, farmers, ranchers, industry representatives, technical assistance providers, and natural resource conservation agency representatives. The YouTube channel won the 2021 Conservation Education Award from the California-Nevada Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

NRCS collaborated on six of the episodes and featured them in their statewide Soil Health newsletter. Participants included resource soil scientist Jacqueline Vega-Pérez, regional soil health specialist Kabir Zahangir, California plant material director Margaret Smither-Kopperl, Colusa County soil conservationist Brandi Murphy, California state conservationist Carlos Suarez, and USDA research soil scientist Claire Phillips.

Other innovations included hosting a virtual field day with continuing education credits and two drive-by, in-person field tours. The project itself was innovative in terms of conducting virtual and in-person outreach in Colusa County.

“We were one of the first in the region to organize virtual soil health events and because of our strong project team were able to quickly pivot to comply with state and local regulations during the pandemic,” Light said.

Outreach is critical to advancing soil health because it demonstrates successful, economically viable practices that farmers can implement. “The opportunity for growers to see these practices first-hand in our growing conditions can break down barriers to implementation,” said Light.

A lasting benefit of the project has been the interagency collaborative relationship they developed.

“Colusa County RCD loves partnering with UC Cooperative Extension on research to improve soil health in the Sacramento Valley,” said Harper. “It’s wonderful working with Sarah as our agencies both share a vision for scaling the adoption of conservation in agriculture.”

“We brought together our different strengths and created something even stronger,” said Light. “This has brought other advantages as well, like workforce and career development, reduced isolation and a stronger natural resource community, and conservation technical assistance enhancement.”

Building trust and demonstrating a mutual commitment to service have been personally rewarding for Light as well. She emphasized the importance of seeking out people with complementary skill sets and maintaining the relationships effectively.

The team is continuing to work together on other soil health-related work in the region.

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