Soybean, wheat, barley, and corn crops stretch for miles across the 2,000-plus acres of Corbin Hall Farm in Middlesex County, Virginia.

The farm, with waterfront views of the Rappahannock River and LaGrange and Weekes creeks, was the site of the 2021 Virginia Ag Expo, the largest outdoor agriculture exhibition in the state. Attendees visited dozens of on-site vendors displaying the latest technologies and trends in agriculture. Many took tours of the farm, which included stops at stations alongside the road leading into the property.

With rows upon rows of corn in the background, one display drew visitors’ gaze from the towering stalks above to the ground below.

There, Mark Reiter and Chris Lawrence stood in a large, freshly dug hole, educating onlookers about soil – an invaluable, finite resource that is the focus of a new educational campaign.

Reiter, director of the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center, and Lawrence, a state agronomist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services and Virginia Tech alumnus, are among a growing number of individuals who support 4 The Soil, a collaborative effort to raise awareness of soil health. The campaign promotes four simple yet critical principles that are vital to healthy soil: keep the soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, maximize living roots, and energize with diversity.

“Soil science can be complicated, but better soil management doesn’t need to be,” Lawrence said. “We’ve learned that keeping things simple is key. That’s the genius of the 4 The Soil message. If you can remember four key principles – just 12 words – you’re well on your way to understanding how to take better care of one of our most precious resources.”

4 The Soil organizers include Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conversation Services, in partnership with the Virginia Soil Health Coalition. The campaign officially launched in June and continues to gain momentum, as well as partners and supporters.

Among them is Wade Thomason, a professor and Extension grain crop specialist in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“In my position, I work with grain growers across the state. So, I’m always looking for ways to improve their profitability and the production potential on their farms,” Thomason said. “I think we understand that improving soil health can do that.”

Thomason called the movement a “rallying cry” of organizations that are vested in the environment and agriculture.

“At the end of the day, one of the things that we all have in common is the need for healthy soil,” he said. “4 The Soil is a way for us to speak the same language and join the same team with production, environmental concerns, water quality concerns, and even human health concerns. We are coming under the same umbrella.”

New grant and project highlight 4 The Soil’s spring and summer momentum

Extension specialist, campaign partner, and Virginia Tech alumnus Eric Bendfeldt has been a driving force behind 4 The Soil, especially the launch of its website and its presence on social media. Through these various platforms, Virginians are encouraged to endorse the four principles and take the “Yes, I am for the soil” pledge.

He also helped spearhead a project that will take 4 The Soil to the airwaves.

With funding from the Agua Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Extension, USDA-NRCS, and the Virginia Soil Health Coalition will partner with Jeff Ishee of “On the Farm Radio” to produce two podcasts a month over the next two years.

A pilot podcast was recorded leading up to the 4 The Soil launch on June 23, which is National Soil Health Day. Ishee conducted eight interviews with Extension and USDA personnel and farmers.

“The podcasts will focus on the mission of the coalition and highlight priorities and principles of soil health, while also incorporating seasonal topics and key points to remember,” Bendfeldt said. “With the farmers we interview, we want to highlight what and how soil health is practiced on their farms and operations.”

Similarly, Professor Rory Maguire in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences secured a $1 million, three-year grant also through the NFWF that supports many of 4 The Soil’s initiatives in the form of three key pillars: coalition building and collaboration, soil health implementation, and leveraging market opportunities and economic drivers.

This spring, with funding from the grant, Mary Sketch, a research associate in the School of Environmental and Plant Sciences, was hired as a Virginia soil health coordinator. In this position, she is recruiting soil health partners and planning educational programming, such as webinars and peer-to-peer mentoring.

“There has been a lot of work going on in soil health in Virginia, but everyone has been doing their own thing. Mary’s role is to ensure everyone is working together toward the same goals,” Maguire said. “She has worked the phones and Zoom very hard and talked to different groups throughout the state. We have everyone from state agencies to individual farmers all communicating and trying to speak the same language.”

Sketch, who is based in Richmond, Virginia, said the work has been rewarding.

“It has been uplifting to see the enthusiasm in so many different groups,” she said. “There is so much potential in how we can pull in partners with soil health expertise. It’s all about finding the right people and being that bridge that connects them.”

Connection and communication, 4 The Soil supporters agree, are key to keeping the campaign “kicking.”

“We just have to keep the conversation going,” Maguire said.

Participate in that critical conversation and take the 4 The Soil pledge.

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