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Exploring the Global Frontier Under Our Feet

The Soil Health Institute brings new vision and energy to a cause that impacts the world.

By Sidney Reynolds, Writer

Posted Sep. 29, 2016

For Wayne Honeycutt, exploration into the critical role of soil began with one of soil's most common edible inhabitants the potato.

During the 1990s, Honeycutt, Ph.D., convened a research workshop with Maine's potato growers, processors and county agricultural extension specialists. The cost of producing potatoes had been increasing more than the market could bear, squeezing profits so hard that anyone associated with potatoes from the potatoes you cook for dinner to potato chips was hurting.

Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D.Photo courtesy of USDA ARS
Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D., evaluated soilborne disease, nutrient availability and soil physical properties in a plot of barley interseeded with red clover as part of his Maine ARS cropping systems study. This photo originally appeared in the USDA ARS magazine.

As research leader of the New England Plant, Soil and Water Laboratory for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Orono, Maine, Honeycutt wanted to share the laboratory's soil, plant disease, agronomic and economic expertise to support potato growers.

"We knew that the right crop rotation strategies would increase growers' income," Honeycutt said. "Rotation can be an effective way to suppress plant diseases, enhance soil nutrient availability, increase crop yield and reduce chemical use."

After eight years of research with various crop rotations, the laboratory provided growers with state-of-the-art decision-support software. The tool showed probable yield expectations, level of nitrogen recycling, soil microorganism activity, disease incidence and economic feasibility, based on their rotation choices.

By the end of the journey, an interdisciplinary team of scientists had shown that they could double potato yield by either irrigating or improving soil health.

"My perspective on soil health took root during this time," Honeycutt said. "In that particular research, we found that improving soil health significantly improved water availability. This is just one data point, but it started me down a path of realizing how critical soil is to all aspects of the ecosystem and agriculture."

The potential to improve drought resilience and increase crop yields on a worldwide basis provided transformative inspiration. Honeycutt realized that improving soil management can make a fundamental impact in a world expected to feed 9 billion people by 2050, and, in order to do so, agricultural producers need strong, evidence-based research and coordination of projects across different climates and soils.

His path was set.

SHI annual meetingNicholas Goeser, Ph.D., director of the Soil Health Partnership, speaks at the Soil Health Institute annual meeting.

SHI annual meetingThe Soil Health Institute held its annual meeting July 27-29, 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky.

The world's soil astronauts

Today, as president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, Honeycutt is a champion for soil health standards, measurement and best practices.

He assumed the position after spending more than 30 years serving the U.S. Department of Agriculture; first for the ARS and later as deputy chief for science and technology for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), where he led its soil health campaign. This effort has achieved national and international recognition for its training materials, partnerships, scientific expertise, technology transfer, adoption rates, landowner benefits and environmental benefits.

Honeycutt brings this wealth of experience to a new institute created to drive strategic, coordinated and practical investments in soil health research.

"While it is clear that soil health management systems can build resilience to drought, as well as provide protection from other extreme weather events, significant research needs still exist to achieve our goals," Honeycutt said. "Our job is to identify the key soil processes that influence productivity, resilience and environmental quality; then we will work with others to highlight research gaps and coordinate national partnerships to address those gaps. This will help drive the transformational changes needed for the betterment of soil health and ultimately society."

Steve Shafer, Ph.D., joined Honeycutt this spring as chief scientific officer of the Soil Health Institute, heading up the organization's research arm. The former associate administrator for national programs in the ARS once directed the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, the USDA's largest research center.

SHI annual meetingPhoto courtesy of Mike Olliver and The Nature Conservancy
Steven Shafer, Ph.D., (far right) chief scientific officer of the Soil Health Institute, often reminds agricultural leaders of the long-term, projected implications of soil health. By 2050, scientists project, more than three-quarters of the 70 percent increase in global food production needs will come from sustainable intensification of existing farmland.

Shafer's immediate focus is to spearhead research that leads to an increase in soil organic carbon. A single percent increase can essentially improve the top 6 inches of soil's water-holding capacity by 2,400 to 11,700 gallons an acre in many typical agricultural soils. Improving the soil's water-holding capacity and increasing water infiltration would also reduce runoff.

"Imagine what enhanced resiliency and reduced soil and nutrient losses mean not only in economic terms to our farmers and ranchers," Shafer said, "but also in environmental terms for the stream, river and Gulf water quality needs we have."

Another early focal area will be quantifying the impacts of soil health-promoting practices on profitability across a range of soils, crops and climates. In addition, the Institute will coordinate intelligent grant spending to develop new technologies and practices while collaborating with other specialists from a range of disciplines.

Such activities will include discovering optimal cover crop species mixes to enhance beneficial soil microbial processes that increase soil organic carbon, control plant pathogens, increase yield and protect water quality. "This is exciting and critical work," Honeycutt said. "We are drilling down into the soil's DNA."

Both leaders emphasize the need to quickly transfer new research findings to farmers and ranchers. Agricultural producers and land managers face projected increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, which are expected to negatively impact crop and livestock production as well as numerous natural resources and related ecosystem services.

"Faster education and full transparency will be critical," Shafer said. "The translation of findings from scientific research into decision-support tools to achieve positive outcomes for farmers, ranchers and land managers will always be in the forefront of everything we do."

It's a bold mission for an organization less than a year into its existence.

Noble Research Institute launch pad

The Soil Health Institute, founded in December 2015, is the outcome of the Soil Renaissance, an initiative launched by the Noble Research Institute and Farm Foundation, NFP to raise the national discussion about soil health with the hope of making it a cornerstone of land-use management decisions.

For two years, farmers, ranchers, soil scientists, agribusi-nesses, economists, environmental and nongovernmental organizations, and government agencies collaboratively examined the role of soil health in a profitable, sustainable natural ecosystem. The group identified the need for a national organization to serve as a hub for measurement standards, economic data and coordinated research.

"During the early stages of the Soil Renaissance, one individual challenged us, saying 'We're not thinking big enough. We need an organization that is to soil what NASA is to space,'" said Bill Buckner, Noble Research Institute president and CEO, and chairman of the Soil Health Institute's Board of Directors. "So now we're exploring the global frontier that is right under our feet."

For Honeycutt, the challenges awaiting the Soil Health Institute incite the same energy and passion that he felt all those years ago when a simple spud launched his career trajectory.

"Thanks to the tireless efforts and generosity exhibited by many individuals from the Noble Research Institute and Farm Foundation, we are now setting the stage to conduct life-changing research, education and adoption," Honeycutt said. "It is now incumbent on us to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am extremely excited to see what we can accomplish in the coming months and years."

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