June 10, 2022
Program aims to improve soil health for northwest Arkansas specialty crops
By Fred Miller
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Soil survey, testing aimed at determining soil health on produce farms
- Promote best management practices for long-term productivity
- Program webpage: https://bit.ly/3vAHnZo
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Two University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture scientists are surveying soils in the first stage of a program to help improve and maintain soil health for northwest Arkansas produce farmers.
Matt Bertucci, assistant professor for sustainable fruit and vegetable production for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, said the Northwest Arkansas Crop Soil Health Program aims to help farmers in Washington, Benton, Carroll and Madison counties sustain productivity of local food systems. The program is primarily designed for small farms — an acre and a half to 300 acres — that grow annual vegetable crops.
“We’re targeting number of farmers instead of number of acres,” Bertucci said. “We expect to have some large farms involved, but we want to increase the number of producers, including small-scale producers.”
The Walton Family Foundation is funding the program with a $200,000 grant, Bertucci said. A $5,600 Division of Agriculture incentive grant helped lay the groundwork for the program.
The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Bertucci also has an extension appointment in the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the division’s outreach arm.
Co-investigator Amanda McWhirt is an extension specialist for horticultural crops. She also has a research appointment with the experiment station.
Enrollment for the program is open now. Visit the website for more information and contacts: https://bit.ly/3vAHnZo.
Setting a baseline
In the first year of the program, Bertucci said they would be conducting surveys to determine the health of soils on participating farms. The information from that research will be used to correlate specific crop management practices with specific soil health results.
McWhirt said these outcomes will help develop educational workshops to train growers in how best to maintain the productivity of their soils.
“We talk about soil health in three components — physical, chemical and biological,” Bertucci said.
The physical characteristics of soils include texture (sand, silt and clay content) and soil structure — the arrangement and aggregation of soil particles. Chemical features include soil nutrient concentrations and pH levels. And biological components include microbial organisms, many of which are beneficial for plant growth.
McWhirt said she helped develop a survey to determine what soil management practices growers are using now. The surveys target both new and established growers and will help determine farmers’ attitudes about their soil.
“Survey questions will help us determine people’s disposition toward soil to see our growers’ sentiments toward maintenance practice,” Bertucci said. “Do they understand soil to be a critical component of their production practices?”
Surveys will also establish a baseline reference for the existing state of soils on farms in the four-county area.
“This program will be a centralized effort to determine the state of soil health and nutrient status on specialty crop farms in northwest Arkansas,” Bertucci said.
“We’ll survey landowners about their soil management practices and collect soil samples for analysis,” he said. “We’ll follow up the initial assessments over three years to track changes in soil and nutrient management.”
Based on the farmer surveys and soil sampling, Bertucci and McWhirt will develop workshops and outreach materials to help educate growers about how to maintain soil health for optimum productivity.
“The surveys help us identify what sort of struggles local farmers have establishing and maintaining best management practices that support productivity,” Bertucci said. “From there, we can help them make changes, if needed, to improve production without depleting the soil.”
McWhirt said they plan to develop workshops to begin in the spring of 2023. “Once we figure out the topics we’ll need to cover, we’ll plan the workshops around the farmers’ schedules,” she said. “That will probably mean spring and fall workshops scheduled in late afternoons and evenings.”
The workshops will be held at the Division of Agriculture’s Milo J. Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fayetteville, located on Garland Avenue, about two miles north of the University of Arkansas campus.
In addition to the workshops, McWhirt said they would establish demonstration plots on the center so growers can see how new management practices would benefit them.
Bertucci said growers will be able to learn about changes that can make a difference on their farms. “They might find they can till a lot less or use cover crops more.”
Bertucci and McWhirt want to get county extension agents involved in the program.
“Extension ag agents are the boots on the ground,” Bertucci said. “We hope this program will educate them as well as rely on their direct contact with the growers.”
“I think it’s an excellent opportunity for growers to learn and develop soil health management practices,” McWhirt said. “And it will allow us to build a baseline of status for northwest Arkansas soils that we’ll be able to monitor and build off of.”
To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn about Extension Programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit https://uaex.uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AR_Extension.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
Media Contact: Fred Miller
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station