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SARE Proposal

The original proposal as funded by USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program (SARE PDP) follows:


Our objective is to help farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) field personnel, crop consultants, and extension staff develop a fuller understanding of soil quality to help achieve their sustainable agriculture goals. We will use the World Wide Web as the primary dissemination source for this tool because of its ever-increasing importance as an information source. We will develop a soil quality web site tailored to agricultural professionals in the North Central Region by: 1) asking for meaningful input from our intended audience in a one-and-a half-day work session; 2) educating our web site users about soil quality, the sustainability of agroecosystems, and the enhancement of agroecosystems through proper management; 3) providing users with assessment tools to identify management practices that enhance soil quality and agricultural sustainability.

The web site will have two main parts: an interactive educational component and an assessment-tools component. The educational portion of the web site will build upon the efforts of the University of Illinois and the NRCS Soil Quality Institute. The assessment portion will include three interactive, web-based assessment products (currently under development by ARS, NRCS, and university partners) and will be adapted for use in the North Central Region according to the outcomes of the work session. Several planning and feedback mechanisms will help guide development of the web site. A group of farmers, extension, and NRCS personnel will be invited to participate in a planning meeting near the beginning of the project in a hands-on work session. A second user-based evaluation will be conducted via the Internet near the beginning of the second year of the project.

Once the web site is posted, it will contain many optional methods for feedback including: an evaluation of site contents; a virtual suggestion box; and a volunteer sign-up for a follow-up questionnaire to see if and how web site information was incorporated into work plans. Over time, beyond the length of the proposed project period, we can evaluate the Webster's georeferenced database for changes in soil quality as users input data for indexing.

In support of the sustainable agriculture strategic plans of Illinois and Iowa, we anticipate that farmers, extension educators, and NRCS personnel using the web site will:

An interactive web site that seeks to both educate about and aid in the assessment of soil quality and agricultural integrity could be a major step toward promoting sustainable agroecosystem management.


Our objective is to help farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) field personnel, crop consultants, and extension staff develop a fuller understanding of soil quality to help achieve their sustainable agriculture goals. We will do this by developing an Internet web site for soil-quality education and assessment. Our specific objectives are to:
1. Ask land managers, NRCS field personnel, and extension agents to respond critically to soil-quality resources and express their informational needs in a one-and-a-half-day work session that would guide the development of the web site.
2. Provide on the web site extensive educational materials on soil quality and its relationship to soil function and sustainable agriculture.
3. Provide on the web site three interactive soil-quality assessment techniques after they have been adapted based on work-session input. The techniques to be adapted are:
a) a scoresheet to evaluate soil quality using in-field observations and measurements (supporting NRCS's Soil Quality Test Kit);
b) an index of soil quality using laboratory analyses;
c) an agricultural sustainability index where users identify their own economic, social, and environmental indicators.


Sustainable agriculture usually means managing for economic, social, and environmental goals (Miller and Wali, 1995). Because of these multiple goals, managers of sustainable agroecosystems require extensive information, the ability to interpret it, and the tools to help them adapt generalized principles to their specific systems. We propose to develop an Internet web site that provides these services in relationship to soil quality.

Proper soil management is one of the most important aspects of agroecosystem sustainability. Agricultural practices and soil amendments can affect soil functions leading to changes in crop productivity, surface and ground water quality, erosion rates, and others (Doran and Parkin, 1994). Assessing soil quality or the "capacity of the soil to function" (Karlen et al., 1997) allows producers and educators to recognize the early warning signs of these effects and thereby make informed decisions about the sustainability of their management practices.

Unfortunately, the large number of measurable soil properties actually represents a management dilemma. It's difficult to know what tests to perform and how to interpret them. To help solve this problem, the Illinois Soil Quality Initiative (ISQI) worked with farmer cooperators and a board of soil stakeholders to develop accurate, practical, and meaningful measures of soil that farmers and land managers could incorporate into strategies to sustain the resource over the long term. These interactions led to the following conclusions: 1) Definitions of soil quality-and beliefs about which aspects of soil quality are most important-vary widely, making it inadvisable in practical terms to think of "soil quality" as a single, inclusive concept. 2) Farmers and other land managers need to relate changes in soil practices to specific management choices. 3) Changes in soil properties must be related to economic and environmental outcomes. 4) Farmers have limited interest in actually collecting soil quality data; their primary interest is in the interpretation of data or information about soil. Based on feedback received from farmers, it was concluded that a flexible-assessment approach that was supported by software could satisfy many of their requests.

While many techniques currently exist for assessing soil properties, only recently has work focused on gathering a suite of soil-test indicators to assess overall soil quality. For example, the Soil Quality Test Kit, developed by the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and NRCS Soil Quality Institute, is an educational and management tool kit that allows users to take in-field estimates of individual soil indicators. More recently, the agencies developed a regionally specific score sheet that integrates test scores to assess the overall impact of management practices on soil quality. Interpretations differ depending on climate, soil type, and crops grown. Additionally, the end-user can choose the score sheet interpretation that most accurately reflects his or her management goals. Preliminary evaluations of Test Kit Score sheet results from several regions suggest that they accurately reflect overall soil quality (Andrews, 1999).
Other soil quality assessment approaches might depend on laboratory-based tests of soil indicators. Efforts are ongoing to select and develop representative and meaningful indicators, to combine indicators into location-specific indices of soil quality, and to use these indices to assess agricultural management practices (Wander and Bollero, 1999; Hussain et al., 1998). Most of the tested soil quality indices appear to be effective monitors of sustainable soil management. Transferability of these indices to multiple sites has been tested using data from Georgia, California, and Iowa (Karlen, 1999; Andrews, 1998). These results suggest that a flexible framework allows indices to be tailored to local conditions, specific management practices, and users' goals and definitions.

The fastest and cheapest method for making user-specific assessment tools widely available is through the Internet. A recent survey by the National Agriculture Statistics Service (1999) found that the percentage of farmers using the Internet jumped from 13% in 1997 to 29% in 1999. Use of the Internet for distance learning is gaining widespread popularity in the US (Swan, 1995), and management-decision tools will become increasingly prevalent (Smith, 1998). For example, one can currently find assessment tools for optimizing pesticide applications (http://www.eece.ksu.edu/-starret/KTURF) and for simulating plant growth under different plant, site, and management conditions http://th190-50.agn.uiuc.edu/.
For land managers in New Zealand, an Internet soil quality-assessment tool already exists. The Landcare Research group web site (http://sindi.landcare.cri.nz/soilquality/soilintro2000.htm) asks the user to chose the soil type and management type (crop, pasture, or forest) of interest, and to enter common soil-test results. Based on these inputs, the index calculates either a relative rating of soil quality against other New Zealand sites having the same soil type or compares the site's soil quality against the general needs for the selected management type. No such Internet tool currently exists for land managers in the U.S. Such a tool would aid in the assessment of soil quality and in the practice of sustainable agroecosystem management.


Building upon ISQI's dialogue project and drawing from the many soil quality efforts that are going on throughout the country, we will create a multipurpose Internet site using the Java programming language. Our objectives are to develop a soil quality web site tailored to farmers, extension, crop consultants, and NRCS personnel in the North Central Region (NCR) by: 1) eliciting meaningful input from our intended audience in a one-and-a-half-day work session; 2) educating our web site users about soil quality, the sustainability of agroecosystems, and the enhancement of these systems through properly chosen management practices and 3) providing users with the assessment tools to identify management practices that enhance soil quality and agricultural sustainability. We will use the World Wide Web as the dissemination source for this tool because of its ever-increasing importance as an information source.

Objective 1. We will maximize the usefulness of our web site by having representatives of our intended audience (farmers, extension educators, crop advisors, and NRCS personnel) provide critical evaluation of previously developed soil quality educational information and assessment products. Their input will be used to guide the development of the web site.

The work session would be conducted in August or September, 2000, a relatively slow time of the year for farmers, in or near the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. The meeting will run from early afternoon of Day 1 to late afternoon of Day 2. Costs for the meeting will include travel, per diem, and one night's lodging for approximately thirty people.

The opening afternoon session will be devoted to presentations of soil quality educational information and assessment products that have already been developed. These will include the Soil Quality Test Kit, qualitative scorecards, scoring functions, and a prototype of how such information might be accessed on a web site. By providing concrete examples and products, we should be able to focus discussion, and gain specific feedback on proposed web resources.

The second day will be devoted to efforts to structure the interactive assessment component of the web site. Our task will be to identify priority components and determine what those assessment tools should ultimately accomplish. We recognize that assessment strategies are needed to satisfy multiple goals and that opinions will vary among end-users. Those most concerned with productivity of a single farm may desire different tools than persons concerned with the water quality of a region. Accordingly, participants who are recruited by general invitation and publicly circulated media (SANET and agricultural publications) will be asked to identify topics of interest (e.g. crop productivity, water quality, animal waste management, and erosion control). Based upon their expressed interest, we will develop and offer several concurrent sessions. The topic-based work sessions will take place on the morning of the second day and will be led by individuals with appropriate expertise (see participants list). Participant feedback on the form and content of the information presented will be recorded and used to refine the education and assessment components of the web site. Participants may favor tools that closely resemble one of the assessment strategies introduced on the previous day, or participants might suggest that components combine techniques, or take a different tack altogether.

The afternoon session will draw on each participant's perspective, which will carry an implicit definition of sustainability, in a brainstorming effort to pioneer a means to assess sustainability. This strategy will place the contrasting viewpoints of participants within a common economic, social, and scale framework. This will serve as the basis for designing an interactive module of the web site to assess soil quality within the larger rubric of sustainability.

A second work session will be conducted online about twelve months later. During this session, we will conduct a first-run testing of the full web site. We will invite the participants from the previous work session as well as newcomers to take part. By inviting both initial and new participants, we will see how well the site satisfies user wants and if the site is useful to those with no previous experience. This session will help to identify gaps and necessary changes in the web site. Because this session is to provide feedback on an Internet product, there is no need for all participants to be physically in one place. By allowing people to visit the site in their free time (within a 1-week time frame), this approach should allow maximum participation. A subset of participants will be asked to provide additional feedback during telephone interviews.

Objective 2. The educational component of the web site will include segments addressing soil quality and agricultural sustainability concepts, individual soil tests, management effects on soil properties, and decision-making tools. Information will be presented with text, diagrams, photos, video clips, and sound, as appropriate. A student with Java programming experience will be hired to adapt all materials to the web format.

Current plans for the educational component include a self-directed study in which users can enter and proceed through the site along multiple paths depending on initial levels of understanding, specific interests, and time constraints. Pages will feature a variety of links to related topics within the site, as well as a variety of links to other sites or listed reference material. Users will have the opportunity to learn about common soil quality indicators; soil functions such as productivity, nutrient cycling, filtering and buffering, and water relations; the hierarchical nature of agroecosystem interactions; and how decision tools can be helpful to sustainable management. Information already produced by the SQI and by university extension personnel and researchers (e.g. PowerPoint presentations on use of the kit, or soil organic matter management) will be integrated into this site. For users who will be training others, tips will be included about how to teach the material and how to use assessment tools. Additionally, we plan to make a subset of the web site's educational information available as slide sets and a video for agricultural educators to bring this information to groups that do not have Internet access. The slide set will include various groupings of the web site's educational materials and suggested scripts. The video will be a compilation of the web site's video clips.

Objective 3. The interactive decision tools will include: a) a scoresheet to accompany the NRCS Soil Quality Test Kit; b) a soil quality index based on lab soil-test analyses; and c) an index of sustainability comprised of user-identified indicators. A secondary feature will be a map of index sites and outcomes to be populated as users enter data in the web site assessment tools.

Each decision tool will offer a variety of comparative functions. The two basic functions will be: 1) to assess the performance of a management practice over time and 2) to compare the performance of alternative management practices. The assessment tools will be used to interpret data according to the user's management goals (as selected from a menu). An interpretation of assessment outcomes might include an examination of individual tests, an overall score integrating all tests, and suggested management alternatives for identified problem areas. We will use existing assessment frameworks as a starting point and allow representatives from our intended audience to design the assessment outcomes appropriate for the NCR. For example, perspectives gained at the work sessions will help to create different interpretations according to the user's management priority, time of sampling, climatic region, soil type, and crop(s).

a) We propose to adapt the hard-copy version of NRCS's Soil Quality Test Kit Scoresheet to a web interface that performs all necessary calculations automatically. Currently, although the test kit is designed to be easy to use, the math required to calculate individual test scores is a challenge for many users. NRCS field-office personnel have developed a computer spreadsheet program to perform these preliminary calculations, which is available to users in South Dakota (John Sticka, NRCS, pers. comm.). Our project would build upon the idea to automate the Test Kit calculations by making the calculation tool available on the Internet and adding the overall assessment (scoresheet ) component . This supports the NRCS-SQI goal to make the Test Kit interpretation easy to perform and widely accessible, as well as provides support to their on-going soil quality workshop and training efforts across the US and its territories.

b) A soil quality assessment tool that relies on laboratory soil-test measurements will also be tailored to the Internet and NCR users. The tool's interpretations will concentrate on the NCR's soils, ecoregions, and dominant crops as identified at the first work session. (We hope to eventually create a national product, but that is outside of the scope of the current project.) The lab-test-based soil quality tool will suggest which soil tests to perform, and then interpret a suite of tests when data is entered. If the user already has soil data, the tool will be able to select the most representative tests for soil quality assessment. This tool would have many similarities to the New Zealand web site but would initially focus only on cropland.

c) The third assessment approach we propose to undertake will examine overall agricultural sustainability. Because there is no universally accepted definition of sustainability, we plan to allow users to define the components according to their goals. The tool will offer guidance for choosing and measuring indicators. We will use the framework developed by Yakowitz et al. (1993), originally designed to examine water quality outcomes associated with farm management practices but recently adapted for soil quality assessment (Karlen, 1999). The sustainability-assessment aid could be used to further examine soil information in the context of other indicators of sustainability: environmental quality, economic feasibility and social acceptance, as determined by the user.

As an additional component, we also propose to include a georeferenced database in the web site that will be populated as users input their data, similar to the USDA web site showing ARS research projects across the US (http://agros.usda.gov). Initial data to test the georeferencing function will come from NRCS Soil Quality Test Kit data already collected during the scoresheet calibration and validation process. Users will be given a password to access their previously entered data in order to make assessments over time. This feature will also allow users to view sites that have been indexed on a US map and see soil quality assessments and trends across the US and over time.

After posting the web site on the Internet, feedback from site visitors will be monitored and improvements made throughout the project period and beyond. All work-session participants who so desire will be placed on a listserve to automatically receive updates about web site progress. To announce the initial posting and additions to the web site, fliers will be emailed and snail mailed to intended groups within the NCR such as extension units, NRCS field offices, and farm groups such as the Practical Framers of Iowa and Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society.

The web site will allow visitors to use the site in a variety of ways: as an agroecosystem sustainability tutorial; as an interpretive guide to the Soil Quality Test Kit; as a decision-support tool to compare ongoing soil management practices; as a limited predictive tool for management effects on soil; as an agroecosystem decision aid incorporating economic and social components into its analysis; or as any combination of the above uses. In support of the sustainable agriculture strategic plans of both states, we anticipate that farmers, extension educators, crop advisors, and NRCS personnel using the web site will:


We propose several on-going evaluation mechanisms as an integral part of our project:
1) A group of farmers, CES, and NRCS personnel will participate in a planning meeting near the beginning of the project. A second evaluation will occur via the Internet near the beginning of the second year to check progress and suggest changes.
2) Once the web site is posted, it will contain several optional methods for feedback (final design to be completed in our second work session):

3) An evaluation form to be mailed to slide-set recipients 1-3 months after receiving slides or video to see if and how the information was incorporated into daily activities. Recipients will be notified that the survey will be coming upon receipt of the slide set.
4) During the years after the project period, we will evaluate the georeferenced database for changes in soil quality as users input data for indexing. This will be most useful if data is input from individual sites several times over a period of years.


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