Soil Health Focus: The Washington Soil Health Initiative -The Latest Work on LTAREs and the Soil Health Baseline


Soil health is often defined as the ability of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem. When the underlying functionality of soil is supported within the agroecosystem, it often results in many benefits on and off-farm. With the Washington Soil Health Initiative (WaSHI), Washington State is poised at the leading edge of doing the work to address needs and gaps surrounding soil health across the state’s diverse agroecosystems.

As coordinator of the WSU Farmers Network, my goal is to connect dryland growers with relevant topics all about soil health. With that in mind I had the opportunity to interview the leaders of the cross-organizational WaSHI effort between Washington State University (WSU), Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), and Washington State Conservation Commission (SCC). I spoke to:

  • WSU WaSHI Lead – Chris Benedict
  • WSDA Soil Health Initiative Soil Scientist – Dr. Dani Gelardi
  • SCC Science Policy Advisor- Dr. Alison Halpern

To ask them questions about:

What is the Soil Health Initiative? Where is it currently at in implementation? And how will it benefit soil health in our dryland wheat-based systems?

The Washington Soil Health Initiative (WaSHI) has come together in three collaborative, yet distinct, phases. With the first being inception of the initiative and WSU taking the lead to develop the WaSHI roadmap, as described in the previous timely topic titled, Soil Health Focus: The Washington Soil Health Initiative – How it started.

The next step for WSU, has been to work on establishing Long Term Agroecological Research and Extension (LTARE) sites. With this aspect of the initiative, Washington State is pioneering the highest concentration of long-term agroecological research sites in the country. The primary objective for the establishment of these sites is to create a place for the agriculture community to learn from, and engage with, the research work happening at these sites.

The LTAREs will all be hosted on WSU land, at sites selected to capture the diversity of predominant cropping systems across the state. The acreage allocated to each LTARE varies based on the work being done. These sites were recently selected as part of a competitive proposal process. At this time, Mount Vernon, Othello, Prosser, Puyallup, and Wenatchee will be LTARE host sites. Scientists leading these projects will be responsible for research as well as outreach efforts, and for demonstrating impact from the work. Sites will be re-evaluated on five-year funding cycles to ensure the research undertakings remain relevant to current needs within each cropping system. According to WSU WaSHI Lead, Chris Benedict, “the real stars of this work are the [scientists]”. They will be leading the research and outreach efforts. He also stated, “There’s a lot of work to do, let’s talk again in a few years.”

Along with the LTARE site establishment is the creation of the “State of the Soils Assessment” which serves as a baseline snapshot of statewide soil health. This undertaking is led by Dr. Gelardi of the WSDA and WSU scientist Dr. Deirdre Griffin-LaHue. Together WSDA and WSU have collected and analyzed soil samples throughout the 2020 and 2021 seasons, with another 200 samples expected for the 2022 season. This means that a total of over 500 soil samples from across Washington state will be included in the baseline snapshot. Baseline analysis includes physical measurements – such as bulk density and aggregate stability, chemical measurements- such as pH, micronutrients and several different methods of macronutrient and carbon testing, as well as various tests of biological activity. The objective of this analysis is to gain a greater understanding of how soil health indicators established in other states align with soil health metrics for Washington, particularly across diverse cropping systems. Current data suggests that soil health indicators in Washington’s dryland wheat system likely differ from those outlined in the Cornell University soil health assessment (pdf). Using analysis to generate targeted curves and identifying regional soil health trends can allow scientists to filter out which indicators are the most meaningful within a system. The ultimate outcome is to create a framework for interpreting soil tests that accurately reflects the health of the soil relative to its context eg: soil health in dryland wheat in Washington is different than for a pasture in New York or soybean field in Iowa. Increased understanding of these indicators in context can enable growers to leverage their soil test results more effectively on the farm. The most contextually relevant parameters can then be tied to specific management practices appropriate within the system.

The LTARE establishment and State of the Soils Assessment are happening now! Keep following for the upcoming article on how the soil health indicators will be used in collaboration with the SCC and where the WaSHI will go from here.

In the meantime, the WaSHI is all about increasing awareness and education surrounding soil health across Washington. Last year kicked off the Washington SoilCon – a statewide event held February 22-23, with the aim of bringing anyone who is interested, high-impact soil health content.

If you are eager to learn all you can about Soil Health – don’t miss the free, virtual event WASoilCon from 8 am- 12pm Feb 22 and 23. The event will include:

  • Keynote speaker Dr. John Reganold- discussing ‘Global Land Degradation: problems and solutions’
  • Regional experts discussing soil health in the PNW, including Indigenous Insights
  • A roundtable of scientists specializing in the field of soil microbial ecology discussing “What we can expect from soil biology?”
  • Lighting talks with updates on the latest work being done on soil health around Washington
  • A Producer Perspectives Panel where soil-health focused growers from across the state discuss their views and experience with soil health on the farm

Learn more and sign up now on the Washington SoilCon website – don’t wait and risk missing this amazing soil health content roundup!
SoilCon Event Flyer.Washington Soil Health Initiative Logo.