On-Farm Trial Looks at Holistic Impact of Soil Health Practices

Brian German Agri-Business, USDA-NRCS

The first On-Farm Trial in California from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is looking at the collective impact soil health practices can have on orchard systems.  The East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District (ESRCD) was among the first recipients of funding support through the On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials under the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program and will be working on the project for a period of five years.

on-farm trial

“We’ll have five orchards that will implement a full whole orchard system management regarding soil health; so everything from cover cropping, composting, mulching, no-till, anything that’s going to improve their soil health we’ll be doing from a whole orchard approach,” said Trina Walley, ESRCD District Manager.  “Then we’ll have five control sites that will stay in conventional during the same five-year period and we’ll collect data from both sites to compare the two.”

The duration of the project being five years is an important aspect of the On-Farm Trials program.  Grants awarded through CIG have traditionally been between one and three years in duration.  Walley noted that it can take a significant amount of time to just set up a research project, even before any data is collected.  Allowing for a longer period of observation should enable more thorough data collection.  “When you do three years of change data, plus one year of baseline, and then the time that it takes to setup the program; five years was really the bare minimum needed to collect a really solid data set,” Walley explained.

The On-Farm Trial program is also structured in a way to allow for flexibility in project management, by establishing research data collection to complement the implementation and technical assistance portions.  The program also provides for improved structuring for how producers working with the project are compensated.  “As a first-time program, it gave us some leeway to set up what would be the ideal scenario,” Walley noted.

NRCS will be accepting proposals for the second year of the On-Farm Trial program through Monday, May 11.  NRCS will be investing up to $25 million on On-Farm Trials in 2020, which includes up to $10 million for the Soil Health Demonstration Trials priority. “We hope more [research conservation districts] and other eligible groups will apply this year with ideas to help move California forward in cutting-edge conservation,” NRCS State Conservationist Carlos Suarez said in a press release.

Listen to Walley’s interview below.

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Brian German

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Ag News Director, AgNet West