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Cafe Talk in McVille, ND draws a diverse crowd of grain farmers and ranchers interested in soil health. (Trevor Peterson/AgweekTV)

Soil Health Minute: Effectiveness of Soil Health Café Talks

There are a multitude of ways that research generated at universities can be shared with the agricultural community.

Since research at the Soil Health and Agriculture Research Extension Farm, or SHARE Farm, is driven by farmer input — so is the Extension programming. Back in 2013, a farmer said to me at our first large SHARE Farm field day that drew 225 people, "you know, Ab, I learn something at these big field days and it's great and all, but I really learn if I can pick your brain and other farmer's brains in a laid back environment. I also need to have a chance to ask you a question today and then ask you more questions in a week after I've thought about things." And, thus, the Café Talk program was created!

But, the Café Talk program is not just based on creating opportunities for discussions (in more technical terms, serving as a boundary organization). It's about managing the information shared to link learning pathways based on practice and research/technical information combined with personal experiences. It's also about building social capital — or in other terms, trust. The Café Talks may at times seem like we are just getting together to eat cheeseburgers, but there is something more extraordinary happening. Those of us with common interests in soil health are GETTING TOGETHER to share a combination of science-based and practical KNOWLEDGE. We then take this knowledge and apply it to our farms, industry and programs because we all TRUST that we have shared the best possible information and experience we have during the Café Talk discussions.

We conducted an in-depth evaluation of the Café Talk program from the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons. I'll spare you all the details of information we collected and focus on the aspects that are driving what we are doing today. At 100 percent of the Café Talks, we discussed barley on salt-affected areas, cover crops and tillage. Of those topics, 56 percent of attendees started using or thinking about using barley as a cash crop on salt-affected parts of the field as a result of attending the Café Talks. Also, 50 percent of attendees started diversifying their rotations to include cover crops or were at least thinking about it and 76 percent were establishing a cover crop in standing corn or thinking about it as a result of attending the Café Talks. We didn't see much adoption of reduced tillage practices though we talked about it at 100 percent of Café Talks, but that may be because the lack of and cost of appropriate equipment were identified as barriers to adopting practices.

These results from the Café Talk evaluation drive the direction of the soil health program, where we are focusing of inter-seeding cover crops into corn as a way to get into using soil health building practices at the SHARE Farm. We think that helping farmers nail down the effective use of cover crops (really, in any part of the rotation) will lead to reducing tillage. Rather than reducing tillage first and then adopting cover crops.

The research we do and the Extension programs we develop go hand-in-hand. The conversations we have with farmers, consultants and others in the agricultural industry go right into the research we conduct. The research then comes back to the farmers and others through the Extension programs. Neither research nor Extension could realize their full potential separately when it comes to soil health.

With this in mind, we will be completing another Café Talk evaluation in March. This evaluation will be sent to Café Talk attendees from 2014 through 2019. There will likely be more than 700 of you receiving an email (from the evaluation consultant I work with, Jean Haley) with a link to a rather detailed evaluation. Please take the time to complete the evaluation — it may take 30 minutes. But, it will be 30 minutes well spent because I think you can see how your input directly influences the NDSU soil health research and Extension programs.