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National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant Supports Soil Health Across Virginia

Soil represents far more than mere ground beneath your feet.

It’s the foundation of all food production and habitats for many. It’s a building block for life.

Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension recently received a $1 million grant to improve soil health, crop production, and water quality across the commonwealth. The initiative is designed to build upon existing soil health efforts.

Led by Virginia Tech researchers and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists, the project seeks to improve farming practices through a comprehensive strategy focused on farmer mentoring and widespread implementation of soil health best practices.

“Soil health is fundamental to all agricultural production with practices such as cover cropping and reduced tillage playing a crucial role in sustaining fertile soils and reducing environmental impact,” said Rory Maguire, principal investigator, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Extension specialist.

The project builds on four soil health principles that the Natural Resources Conservation Service and state partners have promoted to conservation and farming communities for nearly 10 years, including: keep soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, maximize living roots, and energize with diversity.

Improved soil health can significantly reduce surface runoff, decreasing the amount of sediment, and nutrients in surface waters.

The project, “Advancing Water Quality BMP Implementation through the Virginia Soil Health Coalition,” is supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which was created by the United States Congress in 1984.

The project is a partnership between the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation; Virginia Soil Health CoalitionVirginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program; Virginia Forage and Grassland Council; Virginia No-till Alliance, also known as VANTAGE; Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center; and Virginia’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The project is divided into three pillars and areas of focus.

Pillar one: Coalition building and collaboration

Led by Mary Sketch Bryant, the Virginia Soil Health Coalition aims to increase collaboration between existing and new soil health partners.

The first pillar emphasizes the importance of effective communication and coordination among various stakeholders involved in soil health. This broad network includes federal and state agencies, nonprofits, private partners, and academic institutions among others to increase innovation, knowledge-sharing, and ultimately application of soil health principles.

By fostering a shared understanding and approach to soil health, the project aims to unify efforts across the state.

Pillar two: Soil health implementation through education, demonstration, and peer-to-peer mentoring

Farmer-to-farmer mentoring is critical to the success of the initiative and recognizes the diversity in the adoption of agricultural techniques and innovations among the agricultural community.

By connecting early adopters of innovative soil health practices with their peers, the project facilitates the exchange of knowledge and experience, accelerating the adoption of beneficial practices.

This initiative leverages existing networks and organizations, such as the Virginia No-Till Alliance and the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers, to identify and engage mentor farmers, driving the adoption of soil health practices across Virginia.

Pillar three: Leveraging market opportunities and economic drivers

The initiative targets a broad range of farm operations, including small dairies, mixed animal/produce farms, orchards, and those involved in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture operations, aiming to support these entities in developing environmentally friendly market opportunities and public images related to soil health, including water quality from soil runoff.

The 4 The Soil Initiative, led by Eric Bendfeldt, aims to raise awareness and encourage the adoption of soil health practices through targeted communication and marketing efforts. This initiative represents a critical component of the broader strategy to promote sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation to a wide range of audiences. By working together, Virginians can help improve soil health and maintain the vital block upon which life is built.

By Max Esterhuizen

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