Reaping intelligence from innovative soil sensor technology benefits carbon, water, and nutrient management for sustainable agriculture.

As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.”  Innovation in soil sensor technology affords opportunities for water efficiency, carbon sequestration, and nutrient cycling in agricultural soils, with rewards to those who contribute.  It is time to sharpen and integrate soil sensing and modeling tools and remove barriers to use for decision-making by agriculture practitioners and market engagements.  Food industry leaders are hungry for reliable data from supply chains delivering sustainable solutions.  Capital markets seek value and risk mitigation through investing in companies that deliver sustainable products and services.

On March 23rd and 24th, 2020, Greenleaf Communities (see agenda here) held the 6th Healthy Soils workshop by virtually gathering 35 experts in soil science, sensor technology, agricultural economics, and production.  We discussed the latest sensing technologies available for assessing soil health attributes to manage farmland for environmental and crop yield benefits.

Soil Moisture

Existing Sensors used at the Marena, Oklahoma In Situ Sensor Testbed (MOISST). Courtesy of Tyson Ochsner.

Day 1 focused on soil moisture monitoring to inform irrigation management protecting water resources and mitigating drought stress, as well as to inform practices that mitigate surplus water risks (flooding).  Jennie Atkins (Illinois State Water Survey), Trent Ford (Illinois State Climatologist), Ken Sudduth (USDA-ARS), Tyson Ochsner (Oklahoma State University), and Keith Bellingham (Stevens Water) shared various types of soil moisture sensors and networks being used in states and nationally, noting that coordination and guidelines for better consistency of data is needed (most variability is due to soil heterogeneity and climate) and on how soil moisture and field capacity data is utilized. Kaiyu Guan (Univ. of IL), John Cassel (Wolfram), and Mike Komp (CTIC) shared technologies and Kaiyu illustrated how data from in-situ and remote sensing, plus modeling, can be integrated to inform on-farm sustainability and profitability.  Attendance to farmer benefits and their inclusion in developing dashboards and tools was stressed.  Mitchell Curtis, an IL producer, Austin Omer of the IL Farm Bureau, and Dennis Bowman of Univ. of IL Extension advised farm adoption will require minimizing burdens of cost, time, and complexity. More farmer education on sensor use and benefits is needed, as is data security for information shared with outside entities.  Risk reduction through improved data benefits many, including insurance companies and portfolio managers.

National Soil Moisture Network (

Organic Matter, Carbon, and Nutrients

On Day 2 we turned to organic matter, carbon sequestration, and nutrients. Keith Paustian (Colorado State University) highlighted the need for robust metrics to quantify carbon for market-based solutions to climate change. Ben Gramig (Univ. of IL) discussed “additionality” (whether a market is willing to pay for an action that would have occurred without any payment) and “permanence” of carbon sequestration practices. Christophe Jospe provided Nori’s marketplace for farmers to sell carbon sequestration credits. Jason Ackerson and Rahim Rahimi (both of Purdue University) shared existing and emerging sensor technologies for carbon and nutrients, expressing the need for lower cost, advanced testing for a richer dataset. Eric Rund (IL producer), Ron Collman (USDA-NRCS), and Jack Cornell (Soil Health Partnership) discussed the support farmers need in data use to advance sustainable practices. Maria Boerngen (Illinois State University), Reid Christianson (Univ. of IL), and Michael Ganschow (IL producer) spoke on nutrient loss reduction strategies and sustainable farming practices.

Practice Adoption

There is much room for improvement on sustainable practice adoption; only a small percentage of farmers currently even employ no-till and cover crops.  However, farmers are averse to adopting new practices given financial risks; support in new practice adoption and use of sensing technologies for data collection is key.  Resources are available through the NRCS, Soil Health Partnership, Extension Offices, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Next Steps

A comparison study with researchers and farmers on how various sensing technologies can scale across different regions and soils is being planned by some workshop participants; seeking to improve and integrate soil sensors, remote sensing, and modeling, and present case studies and on-farm demonstrations.

We would like to express our appreciation to the Steering Committee who put this workshop together (Nancy Holm, Jennie Atkins, Warren Dick, Michelle Wander, Darrell Norton).

We also express appreciation to the Lumpkin Family Foundation for its generous financial support.

Please contact Katie DeMuro at if you are interested in collaborating on this work or future soil health workshops and conferences.

HSHW 2018 at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference

The fifth Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Symposium was held March 6th and 7th at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference in Ada, Ohio. Almost 900 crop consultants, producers, and subject experts were in attendance. The series is dedicated to a whole systems approach to agricultural land management. The objective is to optimize management for healthy soils, nutritious foods, clean water, and farm profits. This year we had experts speaking on building soil health, regenerative agriculture, healthy foods, precision nutrient management, and healthy waters.

We thank Randall Reeder, Alan Sundermeier (Healthy Soils Healthy Environment at OSU Extension), the CTC team, moderators, and speakers. Special thanks to our sponsors, Exactrix and TKI Crop Vitality. Speakers represented an impressive range of organizations including Ohio State University, USDA-NRCS, USDA-ARS, Iowa State University, University of Washington, Ohio Farm Bureau, The Nature Conservancy, MillerCoors, Cooper Farms, University of Waterloo, Purdue University, Legacy Farms, Agren, and farmers.

Barry Fisher (Region Soil Health Team Leader, USDA-NRCS) kicked off the event by highlighting the benefits of no-till and cover crops on soil and illustrated how aggregate stability is improved in a no-till system.

David Montgomery (University of Washington) spoke on the importance of “Ditching the plow, Covering Up, and Growing Diversity.” David’s books include Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, The Hidden Half of Nature, and Growing a Revolution: Bringing the Soil Back to Life. In Growing a Revolution, David consulted many innovative producers across the world who are regenerating their soils and protecting the environment while maintain profitability. David Brandt (Ohio producer) joined him onstage in describing practices he is using on his own farm in Ohio and the benefits he has seen from using cover crops and no-till including reducing his use of inputs (fertilizers and herbicides).

David Montgomery showcasing his books: Growing a Revolution, Dirt, and The Hidden Half of Nature.

We discussed sustainable agriculture’s impact on nutrient content and quality of crops. Larry Clemens (The Nature Conservancy), Marco Ugarte (MillerCoors), and Bill Knapke (Cooper Farms) presented on this including the environmental impacts of agriculture and how to promote good practices to producers.

During the Healthy Waters session, we had a lively panel of experts on their experience with earthworms. Frank Gibbs (NRCS), Doug Smith (ARS), Mark Williams (ARS), Merrin Macrae (University of Waterloo), Eileen Kladivko (Purdue), and Jim Hoorman (NRCS) discussed the benefits of earthworms and biopores while addressing any issues that may arise including nutrient drainage to tiles.

Other great speakers included Rafiq Islam (OSU), Alan Sundermeier (OSU), Rick Cruse (Iowa State University), Bill Richards (former chief of the USDA-NRCS), Jim Moseley (former Deputy Secretary, USDA), Larry Antosch (Ohio Farm Bureau), Ken Curtis (Illinois producer), John Fulton (OSU), Guy Swanson (Exactrix), Bert Bock (TKI Crop Vitality), Emily Duncan (USDA-ARS), Logan Haake (Legacy Farmers), Tom Buman (Agren), Chad Penn (USDA-ARS), and Jay Martin (OSU).

Recordings of all sessions are available on the CTC website.

Proceedings from 2015 Nutrient Management and Edge-of-Field Monitoring Conference Published

Greenleaf Advisors, the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the Ohio State University, the University of Arkansas organized the Nutrient Management and Edge-of-Field Monitoring Conference in Memphis, TN in December 2015. 200+ of the nation’s agricultural leaders assembled at the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters (HSHW) symposium to advance sustainable practices and supportive policies for feeding a growing world population while protecting the fertile soils and surrounding water resources we depend upon.

Proceedings from this event were published as a Special Issue on Edge-of-Field Monitoring for Nutrient Losses in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Jan/Feb 2018).

Andy Ward, Andrew Sharpley, Kayla Miller, Warren Dick, James Hoorman, John Fulton, and Gregory A. LaBarge wrote this feature article on “An assessment of in-field nutrient best management practices for agricultural crop systems with subsurface drainage.”

Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters 2017

Barry Fisher, Joe Nester, Paul Jasa, Dave Brandt, Guy Swanson, and John Aeschliman

The 2017 Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters (HSHW) Symposium took place February 1st in Denver at the National Association of Conservation Districts Annual Meeting with a national audience learning from expert producers and researchers. The symposia series is dedicated to integrated and whole systems approaches to agricultural land management practices that protect the availability and quality of land and water resources while generating profitable crop production. At this symposium, 6 of the 25 recognized “No-Till Legends” were panelists or in attendance. This year we brought together the speakers below whose work preserves resources in the Western, Midwest, and Southern United States and as far as Australia.

Brian Richter
is Chief Water Scientist at The Nature Conservancy and the Founder of Sustainable Waters. As a Colorado native who has counseled governments and institutions around the world on sustainable water resource solutions, it was only natural that Brian served as the keynote speaker. Brian presented a “recipe for a sustainable water future” focused on setting sustainable limits on water extraction, reducing water consumption, quantifying rights to use available water, and enabling water trading. Brian has authored many articles and books including Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability. Brian presented on how we can save water through improving irrigation practices, changing crops, using no-till farming and other practices, and how water markets and water rights trading are being utilized to advance sustainability goals. See Brian’s slides here.

Jeff Mitchell is a Cropping Systems Specialist at the University of California-Davis Extension whose research focuses on soil and water management in vegetable production systems in the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. California’s Irrigated Lands Regulatory program requires that farmers use best management practices to limit nutrient runoff in the waterways, including the monitoring and reporting of water quality to protect surface and groundwater. Jeff stressed that no-till systems benefit water quantity, infiltration, crop quality and other environmental benefits, drawing on the example of how one farm avoided excess irrigation through no-till and high residue planting. See Jeff’s slides here.

Mike Taylor and his son, Michael are farmers in Phillips County, Arkansas. Mike reminds us that, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Early on Mike discovered that the tilled areas of his farm were susceptible to erosion, and that the soil was relatively devoid of microbial life. Wanting to improve the quality of his soil, Michael turned to no-till, cover crops and direct seeding. Combined, these practices have improved his now “living” soil and associated expansive plant root systems. In 2014, Michael received a “Yield Chaser Award” for producing soybean yields of 96 bushels per acre on restored farmland. See Mike’s slides here.

John Aeschliman farms on the steep slopes of Colfax, Washington in soils that can run 400 feet deep. He has to manage land that erodes into gullies given the great gradient of the rolling landscape. Over his forty plus years of farming John has discovered how cover crops and direct seeding reduce runoff by improving soil microbial activity and the rhizosphere. Through these practices, John has increased valuable soil organic matter in his fields. See John’s slides here.

Keith Thompson is a producer growing corn, soybean, milo, wheat, sunflowers, and cover crops in rotation on his Kansas acreage. He spoke on the synergy between diversity of crops, intensity of practices, and rotation. Keith’s practices highlight how soil health and crop yields benefit from a variety of practices. For example, when Keith introduced livestock grazing on his landscape their manure and soil disturbance yielded microbes that previously were missing in the soil. By restoring some of the microbial community that are common to native prairies, Keith nurtured a return to soil conditions and makeup that were more resilient to weather extremes and disease or infestation. Crop diversity helps to control weeds (by providing ‘inconsistencies’ that challenge the static or constant habitat condition many weed plants prefer). See Keith’s slides here.

Barry Fisher is the Central Region Leader for the Soil Health Division of NRCS. He was given the Conservation Legacy Award from NRCS for his contribution to ‘Unlock the Secrets of the Soil’ Campaign‘ on soil health. He presented several principles that guide best management practices as is understood by soil scientists today: 1) seek to provide continuous living roots; 2) minimize soil disturbance; 3) maximize biodiversity; and 4) maximize soil cover. Indicators of soil health include organic matter, aggregate stability, water infiltration, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling and balancing soil biology. Improved soil health leads to more resilient crops. See the image comparing no-till with a cover crop to minimum no-till where the no-till and cover crop field became more resilient to threats (weather and pests).

Joe Nester is a leading crop consultant in the Midwest and who manages the Maumee Adapt Network to protect the agricultural intensive Western Lake Erie Basin. His research with The Ohio State University and Michigan State University has focused on a suite of practices to optimize soil health and crop productivity while minimizing loss of nutrients (especially P) into the area waterways that cause harmful algal blooms. Joe initiated ongoing research into how changes in rainfall pH effects soluble phosphorus. The research has demonstrated that a rise in soil pH from reduced acid rain coupled with the plant harvesting of sulfur from the soil is correlated with sulfur deficits in the soils and associated increased pH and solubility of phosphorus. Based on these experiments, Joe suggests that rainfall pH could be a major contributing factor to the change in phosphorus export, and that nutrient management has significantly improved nutrient runoff despite the increased solubility of phosphorus. He advocates that a range of good agricultural practices like 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, right place) and cover crops, can minimize stress on crops and that there is not one single solution but rather a suite of practices is required. See Joe’s slides here.

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is Nutrient Strategy Manager for The Nature Conservancy working from the Chesapeake Bay to the Mississippi and Great Lake Systems and points between. She helped develop the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program and at our Symposium discussed the “trinity” of agriculture: soil health, water quality and nutrient management, and how all help to address erosion, yield, and water quantity issues. The Nature Conservancy has introduced reThink Soil which provides a roadmap for researchers and farmers based on science, economics, and policy.

Paul Jasa is an Extension Engineer from the University of Nebraska working on crop production programs that build soil health and profitability for producers. Paul stressed that tillage has never built soil health, but rather no-till and cover crops allow for the residue to be broken down and reutilized into the soil. Soils are active with dynamic microbial life and physical chemistry processes that depend upon these organisms for performance.

The Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Steering Committee is delighted to work with this talented group of leaders, and the many active participants from NACD’s national membership, to advance the sustainable use of our nation’s agricultural landscape that feeds the world. We thank the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Sponsors, KB Seed Solutions, Green Cover Seed, Exactrix and Gypsoil for their support. We look forward to working with interested parties in part through this ongoing symposia series to protect these vital land and water resources, and we welcome hearing from you regarding how we can address this mission.

Celebrating World Soil Day today – Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Conference in Memphis

December 4, 2015 – World Soil Day

Celebrating World Soil Day today – Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Conference in Memphis

This week 200+ of the nation’s agricultural leaders assembled in Memphis, TN at the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters (HSHW) symposium to advance sustainable practices and supportive policies for feeding a growing world population while protecting the fertile soils and surrounding water resources we depend upon.  The timing of our gathering was perfect given that today is World Soil Day with global events echoing our call for preservation of the planet’s envelop of productive soils that drape our globe.  You can find here the full agenda of the Nutrient Management conference that focused on the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds, which drain two thirds of the continental United States.  The day one HSHW symposium included presentations from across the business, policy, research, and environmental sectors and you can find summaries of their talks here. Days two and three saw a continuation of the HSHW themes with presentations from various regions.

But allow me to highlight just a few comments, especially from the producers (farmers) who know best what it takes to manage and protect their lands.

Dan DeSutter, a producer from Indiana, reminded us that ‘nature is our template’ … it is complex and we must study and mimic it in our actions as we work to effectively pump carbon back into plant roots to grow organic matter, while facilitating soil biology and increasing diversity which is a hallmark of healthy natural systems.  He reminds us there ‘is more living matter in a teaspoon of soil than people on the planet.’  Dan talks about fungi as ‘soil livestock’ that need to be fed air and water to breathe and multiply.  When the going gets tough, he says, the survivors diversify … so the lesson he takes away is to diversify his crops.

Mike Taylor, a producer from Arkansas, echoed this call for diversifying crops to retain nutrients.  He quoted Charles Kome, stating that “the quality of our air, water, and food is all dependent upon the quality of our soil!”  And David Brandt, a producer from Ohio, spoke of planting 8-12 different species in his diversification strategy to maximize productivity and maintain soil health.  David afterwards shared with me that his soil management strategies yield crops with a measured nutrient density double that of his neighbor’s crops – that means a given weight of grain from David’s fields sold to feed our cattle as well as the food products that feed ourselves contains double the micro and macro nutrient value coming off fields with poorer soil management.  Yet they get the same price in the markets when weighed at the grain elevator!  Healthy Soils for Healthy Foods and Healthy People is a priority of Greenleaf and its partners.

FAOAndrew Sharpley, Professor of Soil and Water Quality at the University of Arkansas, summed up the first day by putting up an image of medicine with a warning label; he said we should ‘treat conservation management like human health … get the diagnostics right first and then get the treatment right.’  His comments remind me of our approach to Health by Design which you can read about here.  Jim Moseley, past Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and co-Chair of AGree, reminded us that soil is not regulated and so it is through air and water regulations that government will gain its influence; though they will not lead, rather it will take individuals and all are candidates.  We had presentations by U.S. Government officials – Deputy Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics at USDA Ann Bartuska, and Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of Water at U.S. EPA, Ellen Gilinsky, who spoke on U.S. government priorities.  What I found especially refreshing in their comments was support for and emphasis on environmental markets (e.g. nutrient trading) and citizen science (e.g. water quality monitoring) in addition to support for partnerships to scale up field based work to watersheds and to engage global partnerships on nutrient management.  The commitment to innovation came from all sectors, which was the point of this conference.  And we enjoyed a global visual perspective on the importance of soil from Dennis Dimick, Executive Environmental Editor for National Geographic who writes on this subject frequently (link).

Let me close with a comment made to me in a sidebar by a scientist with whom I work regularly who is the past Chief Editor of  two of this nation’s preeminent national agricultural journals, Warren Dick from The Ohio State University. Warren was reflecting on news out of Paris where the Climate Talks are taking place.  While this meeting focused on soils effects on water quality, Warren commented on the importance of soil processes to climate.  This subject is the focus of work planned by Greenleaf with its partners, and perhaps the subject of a future symposium as well – Healthy Soils for Healthy Climate.

My best wishes to all for the advancement of ecosystem health.

John A. Andersen, Jr.

Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters and Dennis Dimick of National Geographic

National Geographic’s executive editor for the environment, Dennis Dimick, has come aboard as a keynote speaker for the Nutrient Management and Edge of Field Monitoring Conference held in conjunction with the Healthy Soil for Healthy Waters symposium from December 1-3, 2015 in Memphis, TN.

His post, “Do We Treat Our Soil Like Dirt?” stresses the importance of soil management and health, an issue central to Greenleaf Communities and Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters. Drawing attention to the vital responsibilities of soil, ranging from the growth of the food that feeds us to the quality of the water that sustains us, Dennis puts the priority of healthy soils into perspective. Simply stated, “the future rests on the soil beneath our feet.”

With the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters symposium taking place the same week as World Soils Day, it seems only fitting that Dennis Dimick, along with a consortium of researchers, conservation professionals and farmers, are coming together to discuss and evaluate best management practices for protecting and preserving Earth’s humble hero – soil.

Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Update

Hypoxia Task Force Meeting: May 18-19, 2015, Columbus, OH
HSHW Symposium: December 1-3, 2015, Memphis, TN

Last September, with the considerable contributions of over 100 participants from throughout the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds, the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters (HSHW) workshop set the stage for the development of a whole-systems approach to agricultural land management for soil health, crop productivity, and water quality benefits.

The Hypoxia Task Force and SERA-46 meeting will occur May 18-19, 2015 in Columbus, OH and will include a nutrient workshop on the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Initiative. The agenda is located on the HSHW website. The HSHW symposium will occur December 1-3, 2015 in Memphis, TN.

The Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters website contains case studies from the September Workshop and will continue to be updated with information on both the May and December meetings.

We have assembled a Steering Committee to help us further develop the HSHW initiative; you can learn more here.

Thank you again for your participation in a successful first workshop, and your continued commitment to practical solutions to impairments of our water resources.


Dr. Andy Ward, John Andersen, and the HSHW team

Mississippi River Basin Conservation Network – Confluence

Confluence is a newsletter produced by the University of Arkansas, the University of Wisconsin and a consortium of twelve land-grant universities. It is a source of information on agricultural practices and nutrient reduction strategies. The Mississippi River Basin Conservation Network is home to the Confluence newsletter. Mike Daniels, PhD and Rebecca Power co-edit the newsletter.

Dr. Andy Ward summarized the objectives and comments from participants of the September 2014 Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Workshop.

Please read his article on the Workshop at the Confluence website here.

Healthy Soils for Healthy Water conference a success


Healthy Soil for Healthy Water. Sept 15, 2014. Columbus, OH

Monday, September 15, marked the kickoff of the first in a series Healthy Soil for Healthy Water conferences, co-sponsored by Greenleaf Advisors and The Ohio State University. Over 100 representatives of academia, industry, agencies, non-profits and, critically, farmers and agricultural representatives were in attendance for a day of collaborative integration of research and practices. Keynote  speakers Bruce McPheron of OSU and Karl Gebhart from the Ohio EPA were accompanied by presentations from groups like the US EPA, The Nature Conservancy, and NOAA. Coming close on the heels of the Toledo municipal drinking-water system shutdown last month, this event was welcomed as extremely timely and relevant to one of the most pressing environmental issues of the day.

Feedback was that the event was packed with excellent research, tempered with the understanding that there is no easy path to solving the problem of agricultural nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. However, this event was an important step towards the development of true interdisciplinary and collaborative best management practices that will identify the right combination of technologies for the right times and places to have the biggest benefit to farmers, communities, and the environment.

To learn more about the recent workshop or to become involved in future conferences, please contact Dr. Andy Ward ( with Ohio State University or John Andersen ( with Greenleaf Advisors.


Using an Ancient Approach to Farming to Address Lake Erie’s Modern Problems


Using an Ancient Approach to Farming to Address Lake Erie’s Modern Problems

Columbus, Ohio – August 5, 2014 – Although the phosphorus that contributed to the ban on drinking tap water for most of Toledo’s residents this weekend came from many sources, most experts will point to agricultural runoff as the primary culprit.

Gypsum, or Calcium Sulfate, is a relatively common mineral that has been used in agriculture for thousands of year to improve soil conditions and crop growth; Benjamin Franklin is credited with bringing the practice to America.

Recently, gypsum has come back into focus not only to help farmers support their livelihoods, but also to assist their stewardship of the land and the impact their practices have on the surrounding waterways.

Research led by Dr. Warren Dick, a professor of soil and environmental chemistry with the Ohio State University Department of Environment and Natural Resources, studies gypsum as a tool to directly address the problem of excess phosphorus leaving Ohio’s corn and soybean fields.

This study, now in its second year, applies calcium sulfate directly to fields in the Maumee River watershed, currently the largest single contributor of phosphorus in Lake Erie.  Average reductions of 55% in the concentration of phosphorus in water leaving the farm fields are being achieved.

While gypsum was historically mined, this research makes good use of a modern source, the calcium sulfate that is a byproduct of flue gas desulfurization, a process that removes sulfur from the exhaust of coal-fired power plants.  The beneficial reuse of this gypsum turns an otherwise landfilled material into a valuable and environmentally beneficial soil amendment.

While there is no “silver bullet” for dealing with excess phosphorus in the Great Lakes, the use of gypsum as a soil amendment, combined with other management practices, holds serious potential to help prevent algal blooms in the future.

For more information go to: