Reaping intelligence from innovative soil sensor technology benefits carbon, water, and nutrient management for sustainable agriculture.

As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.”  Innovation in soil sensor technology affords opportunities for water efficiency, carbon sequestration, and nutrient cycling in agricultural soils, with rewards to those who contribute.  It is time to sharpen and integrate soil sensing and modeling tools and remove barriers to use for decision-making by agriculture practitioners and market engagements.  Food industry leaders are hungry for reliable data from supply chains delivering sustainable solutions.  Capital markets seek value and risk mitigation through investing in companies that deliver sustainable products and services.

On March 23rd and 24th, 2020, Greenleaf Communities (see agenda here) held the 6th Healthy Soils workshop by virtually gathering 35 experts in soil science, sensor technology, agricultural economics, and production.  We discussed the latest sensing technologies available for assessing soil health attributes to manage farmland for environmental and crop yield benefits.

Soil Moisture

Existing Sensors used at the Marena, Oklahoma In Situ Sensor Testbed (MOISST). Courtesy of Tyson Ochsner.

Day 1 focused on soil moisture monitoring to inform irrigation management protecting water resources and mitigating drought stress, as well as to inform practices that mitigate surplus water risks (flooding).  Jennie Atkins (Illinois State Water Survey), Trent Ford (Illinois State Climatologist), Ken Sudduth (USDA-ARS), Tyson Ochsner (Oklahoma State University), and Keith Bellingham (Stevens Water) shared various types of soil moisture sensors and networks being used in states and nationally, noting that coordination and guidelines for better consistency of data is needed (most variability is due to soil heterogeneity and climate) and on how soil moisture and field capacity data is utilized. Kaiyu Guan (Univ. of IL), John Cassel (Wolfram), and Mike Komp (CTIC) shared technologies and Kaiyu illustrated how data from in-situ and remote sensing, plus modeling, can be integrated to inform on-farm sustainability and profitability.  Attendance to farmer benefits and their inclusion in developing dashboards and tools was stressed.  Mitchell Curtis, an IL producer, Austin Omer of the IL Farm Bureau, and Dennis Bowman of Univ. of IL Extension advised farm adoption will require minimizing burdens of cost, time, and complexity. More farmer education on sensor use and benefits is needed, as is data security for information shared with outside entities.  Risk reduction through improved data benefits many, including insurance companies and portfolio managers.

National Soil Moisture Network (http://nationalsoilmoisture.com/)

Organic Matter, Carbon, and Nutrients

On Day 2 we turned to organic matter, carbon sequestration, and nutrients. Keith Paustian (Colorado State University) highlighted the need for robust metrics to quantify carbon for market-based solutions to climate change. Ben Gramig (Univ. of IL) discussed “additionality” (whether a market is willing to pay for an action that would have occurred without any payment) and “permanence” of carbon sequestration practices. Christophe Jospe provided Nori’s marketplace for farmers to sell carbon sequestration credits. Jason Ackerson and Rahim Rahimi (both of Purdue University) shared existing and emerging sensor technologies for carbon and nutrients, expressing the need for lower cost, advanced testing for a richer dataset. Eric Rund (IL producer), Ron Collman (USDA-NRCS), and Jack Cornell (Soil Health Partnership) discussed the support farmers need in data use to advance sustainable practices. Maria Boerngen (Illinois State University), Reid Christianson (Univ. of IL), and Michael Ganschow (IL producer) spoke on nutrient loss reduction strategies and sustainable farming practices.

Practice Adoption

There is much room for improvement on sustainable practice adoption; only a small percentage of farmers currently even employ no-till and cover crops.  However, farmers are averse to adopting new practices given financial risks; support in new practice adoption and use of sensing technologies for data collection is key.  Resources are available through the NRCS, Soil Health Partnership, Extension Offices, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Next Steps

A comparison study with researchers and farmers on how various sensing technologies can scale across different regions and soils is being planned by some workshop participants; seeking to improve and integrate soil sensors, remote sensing, and modeling, and present case studies and on-farm demonstrations.

We would like to express our appreciation to the Steering Committee who put this workshop together (Nancy Holm, Jennie Atkins, Warren Dick, Michelle Wander, Darrell Norton).

We also express appreciation to the Lumpkin Family Foundation for its generous financial support.

Please contact Katie DeMuro at kdemuro@greenleafcommunities.org if you are interested in collaborating on this work or future soil health workshops and conferences.

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