Aggregation 2023: Soil Science, Farmers, Friendship & Ferries

Authors: Faith Van De Putte and David Bill, Midnight's Farm

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Aggregation 2023 focused on more than just building soil health but building community too

While collaborating on biochar research at our farm with Washington State University (WSU) soil scientist Doug Collins, we half-joked about hosting a soil camp. What if we could expand this friendship and knowledge exchange into a whole community? What if we could distill the best parts of conferences—the conversations that happen between sessions, and the relationships formed between participants—to create a new kind of gathering? Our vision was to sit down at the table with soil scientists, technical advisors, and other farmers to dig deep into soil health and on-farm practices.

Aggregation 2023 Logo created by Claire Waterman.
Aggregation 2023 Logo created by Claire Waterman.

We finally got serious last winter and pitched the idea once again. In what might have been a moment of weakness, Doug Collins, Deirdre Griffin LaHue, Gabe LaHue (WSU soil scientists), Dani Gelardi (Washington State Department of Agriculture soil scientist), and Nate Stacey (Oregon State University soil scientist) joined our vision as collaborative organizers. Zoom calls happened, plans evolved. “Soil camp” turned into “Aggregation 2023.”

Two soils are prepared to test the SLAKES app, which measures aggregate stability through a smartphone.
Two soils are prepared to test the SLAKES app, which measures aggregate stability through a smartphone.

Aggregating expertise

The name Aggregation carries metaphorical weight, as it describes the vital process of soil minerals and carbon-rich organic matter binding together with microbial webs and glues. These aggregates build soil structure, provide biodiversity habitat, and allow air and water to flow through soil. Aggregation encapsulated our event: a convergence of diverse elements aimed at nurturing growth, knowledge, and resilience.

In September 2023, thirty farmers, soil researchers, and technical advisors braved the ferries to spend two and a half days camping on our farm on Lopez Island. We designed Aggregation to bring everyone’s expertise to the forefront as we dug into questions such as:

  • What are the most effective incentives or support measures to preserve and increase soil carbon and soil health?
  • How does agricultural management impact soil carbon & soil health?
  • Are current indicators of soil health useful?
  • How do we grow (aggregate!) communities committed to soil health?
Gabe LaHue and Doug Collins from Washington State University explain how to establish an on-farm research trial.
Gabe LaHue and Doug Collins from Washington State University explain how to establish an on-farm research trial.
Doug Collins from Washington State University teaches participants how to use a bulk density probe in the field, so carbon concentration measurements can be calculated into total carbon stocks.
Doug Collins from Washington State University teaches participants how to use a bulk density probe in the field, so carbon concentration measurements can be calculated into total carbon stocks.
The best way to learn is to get your hands dirty.
The best way to learn is to get your hands dirty.

Building essential relationships

On day one each participant was required to give a 5-minute presentation about their interests and expertise. Barn talk topics included successful cover crop strategies, the Sustainable Farms and Fields program, national policy support for soil health, and on-farm compost research. Doug also threw in some soil-inspired haikus. The second day took us into the field to learn about bulk density measurements, how to establish an on-farm research trial, and to test newly released soil phone apps. Through conversations over farm fresh meals, and deep dives into the nitty-gritty of soil health and carbon sequestration, Aggregation bridged the gap between scientific research, soil policy, and practical on-farm applications.

Throughout our years in agriculture, we have observed that farmers make changes and adopt new practices not simply because of their advertised merit, but because of personal connections with trusted sources, be that a farmer, technical advisor, or scientist. Peer communities are essential to provide support and information sharing. Certainly Aggregation fulfilled this for us, with both new and renewed friendships, and a community committed to championing soil health practices, participatory learning, on-farm research, and mutual support. We are grateful for the soil scientists who stepped up to organize, for the participants who showed up, and for Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Professional Development Program for their grant support. We hope that Aggregation 2023 can serve as a model for other communities interested in aggregating around soil health.

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Faith Van De Putte and David Bill

Faith and David are owners of Midnight's Farm on Lopez Island.

This article was published by the Washington Soil Health Initiative. For more information, visit https://wasoilhealth.org. To have these posts delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to the WaSHI newsletter. To find a soil science technical service provider, visit the Washington State University Extension website or the Washington State Conservation District website.