The Soil Health Roadmap with Chris Benedict


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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.

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Drew Lyon: My guest today is Chris Benedict. Chris is a regional extension specialist for WSU Extension. And he is located in Whatcom County. Chris is leading the WSU portion of the Soil Health Initiative. Hello, Chris.

Chris Benedict: Good morning, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, Soil Health Initiative, it’s getting a lot of attention these days. What activities have occurred since WSU became involved in the Soil Health Initiative?

Chris Benedict: Yeah, a little context. So 2019, the state legislature funded a proviso for WSU and that had sort of three major categories to focus on in that two year period. First was to get the initiative going at WSU. The second was to develop a roadmap, and this roadmap was to outline where we are, where we want to be and how do we get there, just like a traditional roadmap is. The third, and this was a specific call out by a legislature in western Washington, was to initiate a long-term soil health site at WSU Mt. Vernon. The first, the first one, obviously is underway. It has been since day one. The roadmap has taken about two years, but we’ve finally gotten to the point where where it’s pretty much– it is finalized. And the ultimate long term set of Mt. Vernon started in the fall of 2019, but really just had its first cropping year systems this year.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so you described the soil health roadmap. Can you tell us a little more about that and how that how are you going to use that to move this initiative along?

Chris Benedict: Yeah. So this is a very lengthy process. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible. And what we did is we basically broke the state up into sort of eight focus areas and relative to the wheat industry, what we refer to it as the dryland agricultural area. And we identified a lead. That person was a WSU person, most of the time. And that person sort of went through and looked at, OK, what resources related to soil health has been recently documented? And for dryland agriculture, that actually was a lot of significant documentation over the past five to ten or 15 years. And so the person that led that the dryland ag is — was Richard Koenig, and he pulled together an existing basically all the resources and sort of brought it into a single document. Outside of the dryland ag area, those other seven or so areas, we may have to we might have actually had to go out and search for that information. So what kind of information we specifically looking for? Sort of the current status, what is the issues that that industries face, goals, problems, and milestones. Goals are different milestones as milestones are sort of things you set, goals are sort of bigger picture long term. And beyond that, we outlined a bunch of very specific things, like five to ten year goals, milestones 10 to 15 and so on. And then we asked people to sort of aggregate where we should apply resources. And more specifically were specific investments are needed. And so we did this for each and every area. Those other areas, we did things like electronic surveys, we did focus groups, we — much of this occurred during COVID 19 — o we had sort of an issue with getting people together. And it actually turned out to be a benefit because we were able to get people from scattered geographical areas into, you know, onto Zoom and basically share that information in sort of an interactive feature. Once that information was through, that raw information was was obtained, it was then distilled down by these focus area leaders that information then once it was sort of in a distilled format, a few editors sort of sort of put it together with the rest of the roadmap. And the roadmap includes other sort of categories or sections other than just these focus area specific looks at sort of what is what is soil health, the big picture, what are other states doing a related to initiatives? We’re not alone in this, but I will point out we are pretty far ahead and very quick and short time period than other states. California’s been going at this the longest, of course, but that’s sort of the road map. It can be found at And you just simply click on Soil Health Initiative and then there’s a road map button. And for those that are interested in reading through it, it’s I think it’s 110 pages [ chuckle ]. We are going to take sort of a version of that really boil it down and make it web web-based. And I want to point out something that this process doesn’t just end here. We are actually — this is a living document that will continue, you know, and be reviewed and updated, you know, over the next 10, 15, 20 years with a goal there is that that things change. We reach goals, we reach milestones, we set new goals, set new objectives. And so we have to reach juggernaut that to kind of make make it work. So my one point on bringing that up is is that that to keep an eye on that website because we will be updating it with various versions.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You know, when I came to the state in 2012, I was just awestruck by how diverse it is. Not just in cropping systems, but in soils and topography, and so it must be quite a task to figure out what all these important soil health characteristics are for the different regions of the state.

Chris Benedict: How do you do that?

Drew Lyon: Yes. How do you do that?

Chris Benedict:  So, you know, when I was part of the process was that I provided sort of a template to the focus later and focus areas leaders. And but that template sort of had a bunch of check boxes to sort of go through. But every one of those focus areas are different, as you just pointed out. And so we sort of naturally let them go with it where they saw the biggest priorities. So that’s the document itself. How do we extract key themes because resources and time are always limited, right? And so how do we prioritize things that are in the short term? And the good thing is is that there were some key themes. A lot of it had to do with soil health metrics assessments, how you assess it, the fact that pretty much everyone wants a quick, rapid, easily deployable tool or set of tools to determine that. But I will point out that there were cropping or production system specific issues. There are some alignment on things like perennial crops, the tree fruit industry, the grape industry. A lot of overlap there, but you also see overlap in situation where in the irrigated Colombia basin soilborne diseases are a big deal. They are also in the tree fruit industry. So we see even sort of opposing cropping styles or systems, there is some overlap in issues, but it I think the document, it does a good job of outlining all of the problems. And it does a good job at defining or isolating those that are somewhat complementary across production systems. And I think at a policy level, you know, at the higher level we can run with those. But I think when we start to talk about long term research that those issues really do have to stay at that lower altitude or resolution because they are so granular and feel the field in some cases.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You mentioned the long-term agroecosystem research extension sites. Can you describe these a little bit more for us?

Chris Benedict: Yeah, I’ll probably call them LTAR’s just because it’s a long, long set of words. [ laughter ] So this is not something unique to WSU. These — there’s a bunch of these they’re actually referred to as LTAR’s. Part of the USDA system across the country. And there’s one in here in Pullman and the division around the soil health initiative from the WSU side. And I should point out there are other two other agencies involved. But the LTAR specific the view from WSU is that we are the information generation central. And so these LTAR’s are sort of regionally representative, relevant production — they represent those production systems, and they test and evaluate and determine how various treatments influence soil health. Of course, we are still learning a lot about soil health, so in just having those of themselves is important, but adding those treatments on top of it. So we’re going through a process right now, an internal process within WSU, to sort of competitively search for additional sites. It’s looking like there’s probably going to be somewhere in the area between five and seven additional sites. That’s on top of Mt. Vernon. And that one specifically represents the northwest, the annual crop northeast Washington intercropping systems that’s dominated by fresh market potatoes. What I gather there’s going to be more for the dryland area and — which is great because it’s so geographic specific, particularly when it comes to soil health — but the process for developing those is we are really asking that the folks, the scientists, that they have to really route their decisions and treatment design decisions and everything in feedback from an advisory team or committee. And so if someone listening to that is very passionate about soil health, they could play a role in that. I would also point out that those advisory committees are not one off’s. They are part and parcel and having been directly involved with the Mt. Vernon LTAR. They they drive the decisions. And interestingly enough, when we were starting to get into for that ultra specific treatments, it was the it was the producers that pushed the scientist who said, No, no, no, no, no, you got to go further than that. We got to really push the envelope on this because one, we may not have a whole lot of time, but two, we just need to answer that question.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so roadmap, long-term agroeco’s or LTAR? I’ll go with that as well, all part of that system. As people want to learn about what’s going on and learn, see the roadmap, perhaps. You mentioned where they could go for that. Is that the same site they would go to if they want to keep up over time with what’s going on at these sites?

Chris Benedict: Yeah, there’s a couple of a couple opportunities there. one is the, that is the core hub of everything that’s going to happen there. There is an  electronic newsletter that we sent out to kind of gives updates on things. It happens quarterly that may become more frequent as things become more as more comes online. And that’s a one way single topic in newsletter. We don’t send out any other information on it. It’s for that that just that purpose. Everyone will be hearing more about this. We’re going and going to be doing a lot more press. You know, it might have been mentioned last week, but the full funding just came online in July. And so we’re sort of in expansion mode to try to make things work. So there’ll be, you know, obviously social media outreach and stuff like that over time. But that is the hub.

Drew Lyon: Okay, well, the Soil Health Initiative is really a very exciting topic. And really, I think this coming at a time when there’s a lot of interest among growers here in eastern Washington and sounds like across the state in this particular topic. So thanks for telling us a little bit more about this initiative.

Chris Benedict: You bet. Good talking.

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Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.