Students get up close with the soil surface and litter.
Soil health and watershed function (for example, covered, living soils with good aggregate structure) in turn is the underlying issue for air quality, water quality and availability, nutrient density of food, the economics of agricultural production, and the maintenance of biodiversity. The soil carbon sponge is also a significant factor in adapting to climate change, and has a role in mitigating it as well.
Didi Pershouse led two day-long interactive workshops for these students and advisors at Kaweah Oaks Preserve, assisted by Peter Donovan and SRT education staff. These workshops included several participatory exercises that engaged the adults and students alike in non-hierarchical shared learning processes, including a decision making exercise in which they tried addressing a complex situation by working on parts vs. wholes, using an example from Zimbabwe with a climate somewhat similar to that of the San Joaquin Valley. Participants first tried tackling food shortages, drought, health issues, conflicts over resources, and ant infestations by dividing up into “agencies” and coming up with expensive plans for hospitals, militias, well-drilling, international food aid, and insecticides, then regrouped to discuss the socioeconomic implications of these approaches. Then they learned how to look at a landscape as a whole, with flows of water, carbon, and nutrients, and saw before and after photos that demonstrated how 20 villages in Zimbabwe had addressed those same issues (far more effectively and economically) by reproducing natural soil and watershed function by changing their approach to grazing and working together on community goals.
Participants also got to experiment with how water moves into aggregated vs. unaggregated soil using a rainfall simulator and simple infiltration testing equipment, and took a look at the rhizosphere around living roots with a 5x loupe.
Everyone then took turns framing questions based on what they had learned that day—questions that they were interested in continuing to pursue. We purposefully didn’t answer them: This approach creates space for curiosity to linger in the air after a workshop, to motivate further discussion and participant-driven research projects. Some of the questions:
We provided printed examples of our free downloadable documents (soilcarboncoalition.org/learn):
Understanding Soil Health and Watershed Function, a 146-page activity guide for teachers that unites these cross-cutting new contexts to the Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core, and National Agricultural Education Standards, and Some Field Methods, a detailed guide for making repeatable observations of soil health and watershed function.
Locating each plot involved considerations of representativeness, ease of relocating the plot, and management plans. Students participated in all aspects of these monitoring plots:
Compositing core samples by layer for carbon analysis.
In addition to the 40 or so students we engaged with over the residency, Peter connected with some local landowners, ranchers, farmers, and agency personnel. A day with one of SRT's farmer board members and Soil Carbon Coalition board member and agronomist Patrick O'Neill, helped raise the issue of land fallowing in the San Joaquin Valley, and the possibilities or opportunities of providing soil cover, grazing, and economic return on formerly irrigated land, where Peter and Patrick established a Soil Carbon Challenge monitoring plot.
atlasbiowork.com/sites currently shows a map of the last 50 sites established, including 10 in the Tulare County area during this residency. This open-source web app for data entry and mapping is part of Soil Carbon Coalition's developing platform for promoting a local, open, evidence-based, and participatory understanding of both situation and trend for soil health and watershed function (carbon and water cycling).
Driving infiltration rings to measure how well the soil accepts water.
We hope to follow up this residency with continued engagement and coaching. This residency with SRT is an example of what we can offer to interested local groups.
Soil Carbon Coalition is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization