The WSDA & the Soil Health Initiative with Dr. Dani Gelardi

Wheat against blue sky.

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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.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Dani Gelardi. Dani is the senior soil scientist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, where she coordinates soil and climate efforts for the agency, along with partners from WSU and the Washington State Conservation Commission. Dani leads the Washington Soil Health Initiative. She’s also adjunct faculty at WSU in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Hello, Dani.

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So the Soil Health Initiative, we’ve talked about once or twice before on this podcast, but can you give us a little summary background on it and then describe the project from the WSDA side and what you’re working on?

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Yeah. So the Washington Soil Health Initiative is a partnership between three different agencies. That’s you guys over at WSU me at WSDA and then also several folks at the Washington State Conservation Commission. And together, the three agencies are working broadly on improving soil health in Washington. And we do it through a bunch of different efforts, from research to outreach and education, providing grant opportunities and technical support, sort of a multi-pronged approach to protecting soils and promoting soil health. And at WSDA, you know, the work is very collaborative. So actually all of us are sort of always involved in each other’s projects. But a big project the WSDA leads is the state of the soils assessment. And maybe some of your listeners have participated in this. We’ve actually worked with hundreds of growers and agricultural professionals across the state. But in collaboration with Dr. Deirdre Griffin LaHue at WSU, Mount Vernon, we are attempting to find out about the soil health status all across the state in different crops, in different regions, irrigated and not irrigated. We have been taking soil samples from all of these different variables and measuring them for chemical, biological, and physical indicators of soil health. These include traditional measurements like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but also some of the new microbial measurements things like mineralized carbon or soil protein. So it’s been a really enormous effort. We’ve taken over 700 samples in the last three years. We’ve trained over 100 agricultural professionals on how to soil sample, how to read soil sample results, and talk to their growers about the importance of soil health. And we’ve also provided every single producer who participated with a customized report of their results so they can see how their measurements compared to those from their neighbors or measurements from other crops and begin to understand how their management impacts some of these soil health indicators.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You mentioned you you’ve collected samples from hundreds of growers and ag professionals. What are you going to do with all that soils data you’re collecting?

Dr. Dani Gelardi: That’s a great question. So we have 700 samples in 50 different crops across 26 counties and we’re still collecting more. And we have a lot of goals for this project. The overarching objective is to better understand the health of our soils in Washington. This dataset will help us feed trends and how different regions or different crops impact things like soil carbon or microbial activity or fertility. And then we pair that lab data with management histories that each producer provides so we can start to also see how management impacts soil carbon, microbial activity and fertility. You know, maybe cover cropping in some regions is providing a large return on investment, both economically and environmentally, but maybe in some regions neither is true. A statewide project like this helps us parse these trends and make more targeted recommendations about when and where conservation practices will be most useful for the individual grower, but also for the state’s environmental goals. And another goal we have is to really look at these 30 plus indicators that we’re taking and try to decide which is actually meaningful. There’s a really sort of a mania right now at creating new indicators and telling growers they must take these to understand their soils, but it’s time consuming and expensive. And so we want to be able to look across the whole dataset and see which measurements are actually descriptive of things that growers care about: yields, erosion prevention, water holding capacity. And that way we can start to make recommendations about how to measure your soils in an easier and more cost effective way. Instead of saying that you won’t understand your soil unless you take 30 or more measurements. And so with this dataset, we have a bunch of different data products we’re working on. Sometime in 2023 will be releasing soil health scoring curves. This is taking our data and making regions specific curves that growers can look at by crop or region, by soil texture. You may be familiar with some of these curves that exist already from Cornell, but these curves that exist were produced really far from Washington and with soils that have very little to do with ours. So we want to make more specific Washington resources. And then the other thing we’re working on right now is building a soil database where all of these data can live and be available to anyone who wants to look at them. You know, we’ll be protecting producer identity and location but beyond that, really, the more the merrier. We know that the state of science is changing all the time, and we want to be able to archive all these data in a way that it will be useful now and also in the future.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And I would think one of the challenges in a state like Washington and with such a great diversity and in landscapes and soils that documenting that precisely is is a bit of a challenge, isn’t it?

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Yeah, it’s an enormous challenge. Even with 700 samples, which sounds like so many and took three years to obtain, we still have crops where we’ve only taken one sample or soil textures where we’ve only taken five samples. And so you can really start to understand why we need so many to cover the enormous diversity in our state, both in terms of how many crops we grow and also in terms of the really drastic climate differences from places like the east to the west side. So yes, it’s a challenge and one of the ways we’re solving it is just collecting more soils all the time.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So some of the — your goals you mentioned are kind of longer term goals. And I think they’re excellent goals to have. But I’m wondering if you have anything you’re working on at the WSDA that might provide farmers with something in the short term?

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Yeah, that’s a great question. If I recall, you had Chris Benedict on your show to talk about the soil health roadmap. Is that true?

Drew Lyon: We did. Yep.

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Yeah. So just as a quick reminder, through that process, growers from all over the state were interviewed about what support they needed to help them address soil management challenges. And over and over again in that process, growers described the need for market based valuation of soil health. We all know it can be really expensive to implement conservation practices. You know, reduced till equipment is expensive, cover crop seed is expensive. And this is especially true when the market won’t necessarily pay more for crops produced under those practices. So in direct response to that feedback, we’ve been working on implementing a program called STAR, which stands for Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources, STAR is a program that started in Illinois and has since spread to 11 states. And what it does is allow growers to fill out a really simple crop specific form about their soil management, and then their responses are converted to a score from 1 to 5 stars, one representing sort of business as usual soil management and then five representing moonshot conservation. And growers with higher scores will be allowed access to national branding materials, which helps them brag about their practices through this growing nationally recognized program. Something similar to how certified organic functions now, but specific to soil management and even growers with lower scores can benefit because through STAR, we identify supply chain partners who are willing to pay a per acre incentive if growers increase their star rating. So right now, Kellogg is the supply chain partner in Illinois who’s actually paying a $5 per acre incentive for any of their growers who increase from 1 to 2 stars or 2 to 3. So it incentivizes growers to fill out this form any time they make a change and and see, you know, how it will help them brag really about about what they’re doing to the public. And so I’m excited to announce that we just received funding for this work in Washington through the USDA Climate Smart Commodities grant. And our first step is to assemble the science committee that science committee will contribute to developing those crop specific scoring sheets. This is going to be a very Washington specific project. So we can’t use the scoring sheets from other states. And once those are developed, we’ll start to enroll producers all over. It’s free to participate and we think it will address some of those issues with market valuation.

Drew Lyon: And that sounds like a neat program! I know when I go out and give extension or attend extension meetings throughout Washington, soil health and social issues are top of mind on a lot of producers, and so the information you’re generating will be of of great interest to many and the STAR program sounds like something a lot of them will be interested in participating in. Where can people go to learn more about the Washington Soil Health Initiative and programs like STAR?

Dr. Dani Gelardi: There are a lot of places people can get information, so the Washington Soil Health Initiative, sort of frequently called “WaSHI” for short, is very fortunate to have a new extension coordinator within WSU named Molly McIlquham. She has been doing an incredible job at promoting our work. So you can follow us and all the usual social media channels. I can send you those links or your listeners. And also Molly has put together this really incredible quarterly newsletter. It details all of the soils work that each of the three agencies are doing. It provides research updates. It announces grant opportunities. If I am correct, I think the next one is coming out in January, so definitely sign up before that and I will send you that link. And then finally, we have an annual free virtual conference called SoilCon, and this year is happening February 14th and 15th. So this virtual conference takes place over two half-day sessions. You can easily listen from your laptop or from your tractor, if that’s where you are. We’ll be covering the soil health principles and how to teach principles to practice. And registrations open now. Again, it’s free and virtual and it brings together experts and producers and policymakers from all over Washington to talk about Washington soil health.

Drew Lyon: Excellent. We’ll make sure we get all those links on our into our show notes for this episode so our our listeners can go find those resources, which sound actually quite fantastic. Sounds like some great work being done by the three organizations involved in the Washington Soil Health Initiative.

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Yeah, thanks. I really appreciate the chance to promote all of this work here on your podcast. It’s been great.

Drew Lyon: All right. Well, thanks, Dani. Appreciate all the work you’re doing and helping to coordinate this very large program in the state of Washington.

Dr. Dani Gelardi: Thanks so much. Appreciate you.

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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.