June 12, 2024

Soil health training applications available

Megan Baskerville

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Applications are being accepted through May 31 for a unique training course for farmers, advisers and conservation professionals that focuses on the soil health system.

The Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership’s Soil Health Leadership Program hosts six two-day, in-person workshops over 18 months.

The workshops will be held at locations around Illinois to expose the participant in multiple cropping systems and soil types. Participation is free and funding is provided for lodging.

Applicants will be notified by late June if they have been accepted. A portal to apply is on the ISAP website at https://ilsustainableag.org/programs/soil-health/shlp.

Workshops focus on the physical, biological and chemical characteristics of soil and the relationship to farm management. Space in the educational program is limited.

Applications will be reviewed to accept an interdisciplinary cohort — with equal representation of farmers, advisers and conservation professionals — with a willingness and ability to share information gained from the program within Illinois agriculture.

The first workshop for the program’s sixth class will be held in August in Peoria.

Details of the workshops were provided in a recent Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy podcast coproduced by members of the University of Illinois Extension Nutrient Loss Reduction team: Rachel Curry, agriculture educator; Nicole Haverback, watershed outreach associate; and Todd Gleason, media communication specialist

Featured in the podcast were Megan Baskerville, The Nature Conservancy agriculture program director and ISAP vice president; and Brandon Hall, a recent program graduate, 2023 Illinois Certified Crop Adviser award winner and West Central FS, Wataga, location operations manager.

What are some of the specific goals and objectives of the leadership program?

Baskerville: The Soil Health Leadership Program is a six-part training that takes place of 18 months across Illinois, guiding participants on the science and principles of soil health, right alongside the practical production management changes that are needed to maximize the on-farm benefits of these systems.

The training was really designed for people that are already in the field advising on row crops in Illinois or managing row crops themselves.

The Soil Health Leadership Program was previously called the Advanced Soil Health Training Program. What was the transition from one program to another like and what’s changed?

Baskerville: A lot might be more familiar with it under the moniker Advanced Soil Health Training. ISAP has been running this training since 2018. I was actually a participant in the first cohort.

The name change is really just a name change. The program content and the structure has not changed. We just thought the name change underlines the anticipation that participants take what they learned back out to their community.

We think of this program as almost a train the trainer where the participants are learning a lot about the principles of soil health and how to implement them successfully, but we can’t get everyone in Illinois through this type of a program. So, we really hope they bring this information back to their clients and their community where they’re from.

In what ways can the individuals implement what they’ve learned and pass it along to the community?

Baskerville: We have an application process and in that application we ask potential participants what their impacts might be. You might ask how many acres they’re currently advising on.

One of the easiest ways to implement the lessons learned is through guiding clients or themselves through a transition, adding one or multiple practices that might help increase soil health on the farm.

The direct implementation through advising is definitely a possibility. Another is if they have a platform to share resources. Maybe they’re on a Soil and Water District or Farm Bureau board that they have an impact in setting up educational programs or, if they have a farm, they are willing to invite people onto that farm and see the practices for themselves.

There can be a lot of different ways for them to get that information out so that information goes beyond them at the end of the training.

Farmers who are interested will want to know if these trainings take place during the growing season and, if so, if they coincide with the time they really want to be in the field. What is the timing?

Baskerville: We’re doing out best to get the dates of the program out in front so when people apply they can see exactly what times we’re discussing. We’re trying to avoid those busy times for farmers, crop advisers and conservation staff might be involved.

The current potential dates for the 2024-2025 training are up on the application landing page on ISAP’s website. Right now, we have some in August, November, early March preplanting, midsummer and then winter. We’re really avoiding April, May, September and October.

Brandon Hall

As a recent graduate of the program, can you talk about your experiences?

Hall: I had went to a few cover crop meetings in relation to my role at Knox County Farm Bureau Young Leaders as chair of that new stewardship grant process. I went to some meetings and was told about the application process. It was a really great fit for me as an ag retailer trying to learn more about it and trying to bring that to the table for my growers.

What was it that motivated you to join?

Hall: For me, first and foremost, I’m kind of a soil nerd. Anything to do with educating myself, sharpening my blade as an agronomist in the soils world, it’s fun for me. Soil health and soil sustainability has been a hot topic in agriculture for quite some time and I wanted to be at the leading edge of this new world of sustainability.

As I was approached about the program, it was really a no-brainer. It was just another way for me to educate myself and get more prepared for the questions that were going to be coming down the pipe from growers, especially when we’re talking about carbon credits, soil health, soil tilth and then cover cropping as a whole with farmers changing their management systems to adapt to some of these new technologies.

I just thought it was my responsibility as a certified crop adviser, as a partner for my growers in my community for them to have somebody that they could come to that had taken a course. That gave me the experience to give educated information from across the state.

Have you started to use what you’ve learned through your operations at West Central FS?

Hall: Yes, absolutely. After I got the certificate and hung it up in my office, I’ve had a few people ask me what that was all about. I’ve told them this training has given me the confidence to be able to have these tough conversations about management practices.

If you have someone who has been doing the same thing over and over again, the same thing that grandpa did and then dad did, now we’ve got my generation coming in farming. Now they’re having some conversation wrapped around soil health and cover cropping and maybe some no-till systems or reduced tillage systems.

Sometimes, those become tough conversations just because that’s what they know, that’s what they’ve always done and it’s always provided for them.

It’s given me the confidence to start having those conversations and move their operation and also tying that into Knox County, validating that we are doing good things and giving me some experience to then look at the data that we’re collecting through that project and then use that on-farm trialing system to give examples for growers in our community.

Also, tying that into education, I have a lot of opportunities where I work with the community, whether that’s FFA, 4-H or even community college at Black Hawk College East Campus. I can give students education on soil health and how that’s an important part of the future of agriculture here in west-central Illinois.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor