Soil Health Focus: The Washington Soil Health Initiative- What is Expected Down the Road?


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. As awareness of the value of soil health has been growing in Washington and beyond, it has brought to the forefront limitations within existing soils knowledge and support structures. With the Washington Soil Health Initiative (WaSHI), Washington State is at the leading edge of doing the work to address needs and gaps surrounding soil health across the diverse agroecosystems in the state.

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 such as:

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 topics titled, Soil Health Focus: The Washington Soil Health Initiative – How it started. The second phase was described in the most recent Timely Topic: Soil Health Focus: The Washington Soil Health Initiative -The Latest work on LTAREs and the Soil Health Baseline, which outlines the current work on establishing Long Term Agroecosystems Research and Extension sites across Washington, alongside the establishment of the Soil Health Baseline and the analysis intended to determine context specific indicators of soil health across Washington’s various cropping systems.

As the baseline soil health analysis sifts out key indicators of soil health, the intention is to distribute a mapping tool in 2023 to connect management history data to soil analysis outcomes. Dr. Gelardi will be conducting ongoing outreach describing the soil health baseline efforts, including work through the conservation districts statewide. Check out the upcoming March issue of Wheat Life for her article about this project!

Once those contextual soil health metrics are in place, and can be correlated to specific management practices, it is time for on-the-ground application. This is where the SCC and the 45 conservation districts across Washington come in. Once management practices can be tied to soil health outcomes, particularly carbon storage, outreach efforts will be coordinated through the SCC to the conservation districts that can provide both technical assistance and financial support to implement stewardship practices. The WSDA is developing a ‘dashboard’ style tool to be an information hub showcasing the range of management choices and their effects, particularly at maximizing soil carbon input and storage. Using the dashboard, and connecting with their local conservation districts, growers can anticipate being able to seek technical and financial support from conservation professionals on how to implement soil-health-maximizing practices and ways to make these choices the right economic fit on each farm.

Dr. Halpern also described the efforts toward getting the bi-partisan Sustainable Farms and Fields bill developed and passed through the Washington State Legislature and the statewide common interest in carbon. The SCC continues the effort to secure funding in support of voluntary carbon storage and Greenhouse Gas emissions reduction on Washington farmland. Dr. Halpern and the WA SCC took this effort all the way to the federal level by getting this uniquely-developed program in front of current USDA Secretary Vilsack. She remains optimistic that funding will come through to support the efforts toward estimating, evaluating, and ultimately offering voluntary opportunities to incentivize emission reduction, carbon capture, and building soil health across Washington. Stay tuned to learn more and engage with the initiative, as this work on the WaSHI continues to gain momentum!Soil Health Imitative Event Flyer.