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Soil health knowledge network from the 2014 to 2016 Cafe Talks. (Abbey Wick/Special to Agweek)

Farmers guiding research for soil health

Linking research to on-farm application is really important, especially in the world of soil health. To do this effectively, farmers should be an integral part of the conversation.

Researchers should share what they know about the technical aspects of soil health and listen to others about concerns and questions. Consultants should be sharing what they see on a broad scale. Extension should be learning and sharing information collected across the state. Industry should share information on how equipment can do things like inter-seed cover crops. Government agencies can share and collect information to develop effective programs and educational trainings.

There are many groups that should be involved in soil health and this is exactly what we try to do with the Soil Health Research and Extension (SHARE) Farm.

This project was started in 2013 through commodity group funding (North Dakota Corn Council, North Dakota Soybean Council and North Dakota Wheat Commission) and involves research plots on-site along with an extension program to share information. Though we do two-day bus tours, field days and workshops, the Cafe Talks are probably the most recognized extension program associated with the SHARE Farm.

With Cafe Talks, we're creating a soil health knowledge network where we talk about and solve issues collectively. This network includes all of the groups mentioned above. We did a knowledge network map of individuals who came to the Cafe Talks from 2014-2016 to show what connections are being made. Let me explain what everything means:

Cafe Talk locations are highlighted with a royal blue square and the name of the location. Blue circles indicate farmers, light green are NDSU scientists, dark green are NDSU Extension, red are crop consultants, yellow are government agency, orange indicates industry representatives, and grey means unknown profession. We had 168 people come to our Cafe Talks between 2014 and 2016, so that's how many circles are in the figure.

Now, let's interpret what all these circles mean. Looking at the top 10 most influential people (or the largest circles) in the network — five are farmers, two are researchers, two are NDSU Extension specialists and one is a crop consultant. This means we have four groups or professions that are interacting often and are highly influential in the network. They may be the ones providing the most advice or sharing experiences — in other words, these are the "go-to" people.

Let's talk connections — the circles in the figure are connected with 182 lines, meaning that there have been 182 connections (or conversations) made during the Cafe Talks from 2014 to 2016. Plus, 180 of those connections occurred more than once! Those connections and the repeated interactions are what is advancing the use of soil health building practices across North Dakota.

The big picture is that we have several people in different professions who live in totally different areas talking with each other about soil health. They are coming up with solutions to specific on-farm issues and answering each other's questions. In the first two years of Cafe Talks, we have created a support group to help us all advance in our understanding of soil health building practices.

Join the soil health network — start sharing your ideas and learning from others. Develop those relationships that will help you on your farm and allow you to help others on their farms or with their programs. We have a calendar of events and information on upcoming field tours posted on the NDSU Soil Health webpage (ndsu.edu/soilhealth). We will keep posting information throughout the summer, so check back often.

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