Soil Health Basics for Technical Service Providers

We met with Dr. Stacy Zuber, USDA-NRCS State Soil Health Specialist, on March 15th to discuss details about the new national course for certification of Technical Service Providers to write Soil Health Management System Conservation Activity Plans (CP 116). This training will be hosted by the USDA-NRCS Soil Health Division through virtual delivery April 27-29th.

Dr. Stacy Zuber, USDA-NRCS State Soil Health Specialist

ISAP: Thank you for engaging with ISAP, Stacy! We are very interested to hear more about this new national course for Technical Service Providers, Certified Crop Advisors, Conservationists, SWCD Employees and others wishing to become Technical Service Providers, or TSP, certified for CAP 116. Tell us a little bit more about this opportunity and what is a TSP?

Stacy: Thanks for talking with me more today. This is truly a great opportunity to assist producers working to improve soil health across Illinois and the entire nation. We in Illinois are very happy that the NRCS-National Soil Health Division are providing this opportunity. If you have questions concerning the course or for more details, please reach out to Nathan Lowder by email at nathan.lowder@usda.gov. A TSP is a Technical Service Provider, or an individual with certifications (CCA, education) that works with farmers. TSPs can extend the workforce and get more farmers into the groove of adopting practices. To qualify as a TSP, you need to complete training and demonstrate the ability to write plans. Currently, the Illinois state TSP coordinator is Glen Franke and he can help coordinate resources that are available for TSPs.

ISAP: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Soil Health Management System Conservation Activity Plans, SHMS CAPs, and how they differ from conservation plans?

Stacy: Of course! Soil health management system plans, sometimes referred to as CAP-116, are subset of the general conservation planning process that focus on soil health resource concerns. These plans are created for farmers to help decide on conservation practices that can help improve soil health. The main focus of soil health management plans is the soil health resource concerns, which include soil organic matter degradation, compaction, aggregate instability and soil organism habitat degradation. Like other types of conservation plans, they involve a number of steps, beginning with identifying problems and objectives, inventorying and analyzing resources, developing and evaluating options and alternatives. Then the producer can decide how he or she wants to proceed and the selected practices are implemented and evaluated.

ISAP: Really great! It sounds like this type of plan would always benefit a farmer. It provides the farmer an opportunity to take a closer look at their current operation, what they are doing well, and what more could be done for it. Could you elaborate maybe more on specifically what kind of farmer might benefit from a soil health plan?

Stacy: All farmers would benefit from a plan for soil health management systems—there really isn’t a specific farmer or type of operation that wouldn’t benefit from this opportunity. The process can help them to identify issues on their farming operation and opportunities to improve upon that.

ISAP: That’s what I was thinking, but it’s nice to have that complete understanding. Is anyone currently writing these plans are in Illinois?

Stacy: CAP116 was introduced by NRCS within the last year, and because it is so new there isn’t anyone in Illinois, or many across the country, that are currently certified to write and develop these types of plans. The virtual course in April will provide essential training and we hope that it will increase the number of certified TSPs located all across the nation and in Illinois.  

ISAP: This type of process reminds me of ISAP’s Advanced Soil Health Training model. Members of the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership developed the Advanced Soil Health Training to increase the number of Illinois farmers, retailers, crop advisors and conservation professionals who understand the science of soil health and related production management changes. Topics include soil structure, chemistry, and biology; cover crop selection, management, and termination; planting and tillage equipment; field day demonstrations training; and communication and outreach strategies. The intensive classroom and in-field training model spans 18 months and graduates are encouraged to share what they learn through presentations and field days. Are there any plans to try to tie these two opportunities together?

Stacy: The CAP 116 plan and ways to fulfill the training requirements for TSP certification is still in its infancy. Even with the online training portion, it looks like there will still be a need for in-field training. There may be ways to tie the needs and goals together sometime in the future. And with all the recent interest in soil health I think we’re going to see more and more people seeking technical information – from the farmer searching for more information to improve the soil health on their farm, to crop advisors and retailers who are looking for ways to better understand soil health so they can better advise their customers.

ISAP: Awesome! I think that is a great idea and opportunity. Connecting back with this type of work and farmers, how would a TSP work with a farmer to write a plan and what do the costs look like for both parties?

Stacy: The farmer applies for funding to get CAP116 written by TSP as part of the usual Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) application process through their local NRCS field office. The application then goes through a ranking and selection process. EQIP applications are accepted throughout the year. The plan covers the entire operation and could cover the operation throughout 3-5 years. The contract amount to develop the plan is set per EQIP payment schedule and varies from slightly above $1800 to just under $4000, depending on the type of farm operation (example cropland, livestock organic, etc.). The payment schedules are set up to reimburse a farmer for the majority of the cost of having a plan developed by the TSP. The plan belongs solely to the farmer and they can then elect to pursue further funding to implement practices recommended in the plan through an additional EQIP application and contract or explore private sector funds for implementing on their own.

ISAP: What is the anticipated need for these types of plans and can these SHMP help farmers gain access to ecosystem markets?

Stacy: The need for these types of plans seem to be increasing in priority specifically for NRCS. The new administration sees a huge need for climate action and carbon reducing programs. While farmers can’t be paid twice for the same practice, there’s definitely a potential for farmers to gain access to ecosystem markets, and the planning process can assist them to identify which practices are right for their farm.

ISAP: Makes sense! I think overall, that it’s really positive to see the continued push to assist farmers and allow them to gain control over improving their operation on their terms. It sounds like this type of planning process will help with that overall. Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us more about this opportunity. Good luck!

Stacy: Thank you so much for discussing this more! For all of you interested in attending the virtual training and / or becoming TSP —register today: https://forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx?id=5zZb7e4BvE6GfuA8-g1Gl2j9v67x2tFNq_Em_m053OFUOU9CMlNBT1VYSzNXUUlFQ1pQSElQRTExVi4u

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