In Episode 4, we talk with Zach Thode and Elizabeth Black.
Zach manages a large cattle ranch in Livermore Colorado. Elizabeth is an artist in Colorado and manages a Christmas tree farm.
Elizabeth is also the project leader for The Citizen Science Soil Health Project, partially funded by a Western SARE grant and Zach is a producer participant in that project. The Citizen Science Soil Health Project is a grower-driven project which uses the collective knowledge of diverse participating growers to apply local solutions to soil health implementation conundrums.
In addition to raising cattle, Zach grows forage crops which can be challenging in the high elevation and alkaline soils.
Elizabeth was concerned about climate change and started learning about carbon sequestration. This led her to focusing on soil health and taking soil measurements to show what is working.
The Citizen Science Soil Health Project originally aimed for 30 growers. The project now has 48 growers who all take soil samples for 10 years. The group is diverse – small organic vegetable growers, ranchers, and large commodity producers.
The collaboration brings together agencies such as NRCS, academics, producers, policy makers. “It’s a great opportunity for all of us to learn from each other so that we don’t all have to fail in our efforts,” says Zach.
Building soil health is a complex problem without a simple answer or map. “We’ve tried a lot of things. It’s not easy, but we’re getting better.” It’s important to have recommended best practices backed by on-the-ground data. Letting the data speak for itself helps build trust between producers and agencies.
Learn more about The Citizen Science Soil Health Project.
Thanks for listening to Fresh Growth! To learn more about Western SARE and sustainable agriculture, visit our website or find us:
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome to season three of fresh growth podcast by the Western ser program that sustainable agriculture research and education. I'm your host, Steve Elliott alongside co-host Stacy Clary , just for background Western ser promotes sustainable farming and ranching across American west through research education and communication efforts. Like this podcast, it is funded by the us department of agriculture's national Institute of food and agriculture, fresh growth introduces producers and ag professionals from around the west who are embracing new ways of farming and ranching. They'll tell us about their experiences adopting more sustainable agricultural and challenges and benefits. They've seen. Today's guests are Zach fo and Elizabeth Black. Zach manages a large ke ranch Livermore, Colorado. Elizabeth is an artist in Colorado and manage a Christmas tree farm. Elizabeth is also the project leader for the citizen science soil health project, partially funded by westerner grant. And Zach is a producer participant in that project. The citizen science soil health project is a grower driven project, which uses the collective knowledge of diverse participating growers to apply local solution to soil health, imp implementation conundrum, Zach and Elizabeth. Welcome, and thanks for sitting down with us.Speaker 2:
You're welcome. Thank you .Speaker 3:
Hi, Zach . As a start, it'll be helpful , um , for us to hear description of your area in Colorado and , and just some details about your operation.Speaker 2:
Okay . I live and operate in Livermore, Colorado, which is a very small community , um, with no town necessarily on along highway 2 87, between Fort Collins and Laramie. Uh, it's historically just been , uh, cattle grazing operations with some small irrigated farming operations. We are about 6,000 feet elevation and , um, within 12 miles of the Wyoming. So a little further north than a lot of the major farming in Colorado. And , uh, so , so that being said, we, we operate it as a cattle ranch with , um, the added value of some irrigated forage crops and irrigated , uh , pasture. And so there's a range between 200 than 500 mother cows on the ranch, depending on , um, what time of year it is. And if we have outside cows in or not. And that, that I , those outside cows come in and grays only for the summer. And then there's a , there's a herd of cattle that are my own that I operate year round on the ranch. And they're just, it's a cow cap operation. So we wean calves and sell them as all natural calves to a feeder once a year. And then we raise , um, some of those heifers on to be breeding stock , uh , for future growth and also to sell , um, the irrigated crops around here are mostly forage. Again, we're pretty far north and a little high in elevation. So there's reliably only about a hundred to 110 days of frost free growing. Um, sometimes we can do more sometimes , um, less. And so we're a little limited in how we do things . So we are careful in, in what crops we grow and we try a lot of different things to try to improve some of that. Um, there, this is sloping ground. So , uh, that , that also limits some of our abilities. There's not a lot of really flat ground. Um, and we do seem to find out that we grow more rock, then we like to grow. And , um, and so that, that adds to the challenge a little bit. Uh, so, so that's the general cusp of our operation. And , uh, again, I have , I have four little kids and so they keep things busy .Speaker 3:
Did you return to the , or is if it's , um , relatively new for you?Speaker 2:
So I'm a first generation rancher. I grew up , um, to a couple of , um, hippie farmers that grew , um, less than legal crops , um, way back in the seventies and eighties. And I , uh, we lived next to a lot of cattle ranches in that time and I liked seeing what they did. So I started working on cattle ranches when I was nine. And then I stayed in the area after going to CSU to get an ag engineering degree and did a number of engineering , um, jobs while I was continuing to come back to operate this ranch and then purchasing some of our own property as well as our own cattle herd. So I'm kind of a , a random fit.Speaker 1:
Sounds perfect. Actually, Elizabeth, we'll switch over to you, Zach , we'll get , we'll get back and talk about your soil health challenges specifically, but Elizabeth, tell us about the, the soil health project, how it started, how it's going , um, what you've learned, what you've learned didn't work.Speaker 4:
Well, I was really concerned , um, for several years about climate change and kind of got into soil carbon sequestration through the climate change door. And the idea for of the citizen science soil health project started at actually at a county commissioner's hearing on genetically modified crops. That was a very contentious issue in our area. And I was sitting talking to , um , one of the , uh , GM and I asked him, you know, have you ever haven't you ever tested your soil to show that your farming methods are actually increasing soil health and improving soil health and sequestering carbon? And he , his answer was, well, you know, even if we, I haven't, but even if we had done that, no one would believe us. And so I thought, well, you know, maybe that's something I could do because maybe people would believe me cuz I'm sort of in the middle, in that controversy. So I started talking about the project with different people and the county was already doing some soil testing. So I , I , I got a number of technical advisors to help me local local people who, who were working in that area, NRCS people and stuff, and um, put together the project with local funding and um, then a , a grant from Western Sarah when I started the project up, I was thinking, okay, if I can get 30 growers, I I'm doing really well. We're now up to 48 growers that it's a real mix of growers, vegetable, small organic vegetable growers , uh , larger commodity growers, ranchers like Zack . Um, we've got a, a couple of golf courses because that's where a lot of Colorado water ends up. It's a good example of, of lawns and what can happen with soil health on lawns. We've got a real mix of, of different kinds of growers in the project.Speaker 1:
What specifically happens in , in the project? What, what are these growers doing? Getting, seeing, learning.Speaker 4:
So EV each grower has committed to test one site for 10 years to, to , um, collect soil samples from one site. For 10 years, we run , um, a free Haney test on that site every year for, and then also a , uh , free PL a , uh , soil test every other year on that site. And then they can test as many other sites as they want whenever they want. And we can give them a discounted rate on the, on the soil tests . And then we, we collect all the data, try to give, give them their test results in a format that they can understand. And then we track that , uh , data and can show them how their , how their results compare with their peers and also how they progress over the years. Does that answer your question?Speaker 1:
It does. And now my question to Zach is tell me about it from your perspective.Speaker 2:
So I've been in the citizen science soil health program for two years now. So two full soil health tests, and it's a good program. I think she, I think Elizabeth has done a fantastic job of trying to relate with a wide variety of interested parties , um, from the farmers to the, to the policy makers , to the academics and to the grant writers like yourself. And I really appreciate her hard work in doing so , uh , this is a complex problem with , uh, not so simple answers and not so simple , uh, maps to how to do things. And so this is a great opportunity for all of us to learn from each other so that we don't all have to fail in our efforts. And so it's been good. I've been doing , um, different levels of cover cropping and soil health projects on this ranch for I've been on this particular ranch for nine years. And we've been doing a , a lot since I first got here. Um, mostly with some very idealistic goals in trying to do it in a very organic and passive way and found that that was a complete struggle and nearly impossible to try to , um, go from, from a grass hay operation and Rocky ground to , uh , cover annual cover cropping with some perennials and, and really boosting soil health without , um, plowing much cuz we couldn't cuz of rocks and without the help of , um, herbicides and uh , fertilizers. And so slowly over time , we've just learned that it , this is not an easy thing to do. And uh , we've tried a lot of things and we're getting better ,Speaker 1:
You know , things are getting better . What , what have you learned that works ? What have , what , you know , what have you changed in nine years? And, andSpeaker 2:
Yeah, so I mean I'll, I'll pick it back. Um, kind of ironic, you know, the world we live in thinks that organic farming probably, and, and soil health go hand in hand and it was a little bit of an eyeopener to me. I wanna say three years ago, Elizabeth presented some of her results from her earlier , um , data that she had gathered up and it clearly showed that the soil health and the organic farms was not as good as the soil health and the conventional farms. And that was kind of a bit of an eye opener to me, recognizing that when you plow the ground, as much as those guys have to do to as weeds and, and prepare for other crops, it was it just so hard on the, on the soil. And that kind of changed my perspective at that point to say, well, I'm willing, I don't, I'm not stuck to some certified organic standard. I was just trying to, to , to run this in a very passive, organic way to see how I could, I , if I could make improvements in the soil without having to put a lot of money into it. And , uh, and I was just, it was so slow and recognizing that maybe adding some fertilizer and maybe a little bit of herbicides at small amounts at the right times might help me speed up the process. And so , um, at that point I kind of switched gears a little bit and started being a little bit more , uh, intentional about how I was planting cover crops and how I was managing them and how I was managing my other forage crops. And , um, not being stuck to some kind of a , uh , idealistic standard of organic farming or, or regenerative farming only, but being willing to kind of plug it all together and put all the pieces together and , and, and also working with different people on different varieties and different mixtures, and also being somewhat pragmatic about the price of seed and the cost of, and the cost of managing all of these moving parts. And so slowly we've realized that, that the fertilizers really, really help some of these cover crops go really fast and put much more organic matter into the ground and much more , um , biomass up into the, the forage so that we can grow , raise it or cut it and harvest it or put it back into the ground. And so kind of not being so stuck to some of these standards has really helped us move forward with that. And , and again, we live in not level, ground and not ground free of rocks. And so those really kinda limit some of the things we do. Um , the , the value that I have is , um, throughout the growing season, all of my cows are relatively close by, and that's not the case for a lot of livestock producers. Um, so it's hard for livestock producers to integrate livestock into a growing , um , a , a summertime growing cover crop. And fortunately for me , I have that ability cuz my , you , the , the way my operation works, my cows are nearby and, and it's a large group of cows. So it's, so I can actually have an impact on utilizing livestock in an irrigated crop environment. Whereas if I only had a few cows, I can't get the same impact as I can with a large group of cows. Um, mostly because I just don't have the , the time to go out and move fence every 15 minutes or every day even. And so , um, so it's been, I've been able to kind of accelerate some of these things and, and there's learning along the way. We also do grow some other crops that require some tillage and you see that the impacts of that in the, in the soil health scores and the soil test results, they're reasonable and they're overcomable. And, and I think that's something that a lot of farmers lose sight of is it's not you you're building soil health, not just to always be a steady incline. You do have to make money some years where you need to actually farm your ground and go plant something that makes you some money. And , uh, and so that's okay if your soil health is strong, it can recover much faster from a tillage operation than if it's at a degraded condition and you're just always tilling it. Um , I , I think there's a guy in Louis valley , Rocky Brennan , and he talks about how quick is , is cover crop fields recover from , um, from that heavy duty potato growing operation. Um , we don't ever get to that intensity, but still there's a recognized difference in how quick your soil recovers, if you , if you've taken care of it. Yeah .Speaker 4:
That's something to what Zach said, please . The , one of the things we found , um , that Zach alluded to was that we checked median , soil health scores of our organic growers and conventional growers. And when we compared them the first year of the project , um, they were exactly the same , um, our, our group of organic growers in our, our conventional growers, they had the same median soil health score. The other thing we've found is that our growers came generally came into the project with a fairly decent knowledge base about soil health principles. They kind of knew what they should be doing. Um , the , a broad base principles that the NRCS puts out about decreasing tillage and , um , planting cover crops and getting more organic matter into the, the , um, increasing your days of living cover all those kinds of things. Um , what , where they got stuck is the how to do that. Be cuz of our, you know, we've here in Colorado, we've got high altitude, limited water, alkaline soil, a short growing season. I mean, it's, it's, it's a hard place to farm and a lot of the , um, success stories, you know, from California and Pennsylvania just don't apply that out well here. So my point, my philosophy has been that the growers in our project between all 48 of them are gonna be able to figure out the, how , um, if they can share information about what, what has worked for them and, and , um , different things and what hasn't worked, you know, different things that they've tried that have not wor have not worked. So , um, that's kind of what we're focusing is like, okay, how do you do that kind of stuff in , in the difficult environmental conditions we have here.Speaker 5:
And , and that's something I was interested it in was the sharing part. You have 48 growers, how much interest has there been from growers that are not participants? Are they following what you're doing, asking questions? Have you been able to do any outreach to them given that's harder with COVIDSpeaker 4:
Our , our planned outreach kind of bit the that's the last two years. So we, we have not had much at allSpeaker 1:
Worse than everyone else'sSpeaker 4:
Yeah. And it's hard too, because , um, you know, these guys are really busy. They don't, they don't have a lot of downtime. Yeah . Yeah .Speaker 5:
Have you been asked questions informally from people? Are they , are they paying attention even if you didn't have a , a , a more formal outreach event, do you think other growers are paying attention to what's happening or maybe they've talked to Zach ?Speaker 4:
Well, I've, I've given a presentation every year at the soil revolution conference here in Boulder, which generally there's about 200 people at that. Um, and it's a mix of growers. Most of the people there are, you know, like the, the hangers on the ag techy, academic , a government people. And that's probably the majority of people that attend the conference. Um, but they, they, they have been interested in what I've had to say. You know, I've sort of been able to tell 'em about our group findings so far what we've found out as, as a group, just looking at , um, our test results.Speaker 1:
So same question for you, Zach, have, have you been able to share what you've done and what's worked and what hasn't, you know, with, with colleagues with other answers for producers?Speaker 2:
So yes and no again , um, I think to Elizabeth's point to everybody's point. So some peer to peer engagement was severely limited in 2020 , um , a little bit limited in 2021. And now at this point it's kind of fading, but , um, absolutely there's, there's definitely peer tope engagement. I would say that I'm not responsible for this, but in LAER county, there was 0% cover crossing as of four years ago. And now there's, there's probably 10% of the farmers that have incorporated some cover cropping in some actual standard or intentional soil health projects on their farms and, and that's new and that's not necessarily my doing or Elizabeth doing or anything. Some of that is coming from , uh , a lot of different places. And , and I think to Elizabeth's credit, a lot of her influence goes probably up instead of out , which is okay because policy makers hear what she's doing and hear the , hear the data . And when they go back to the people that are farming on publicly owned property and say, Hey, look, here's, what's working. I think that that information does get to the people that need to hear it. It might kind of go up and then out and then back down rather than just peer to peer , uh , and same in my environment, but there's also , uh , there's also a, a struggle in Colorado and, and this is Elizabeth and I have had this conversation, but Colorado's a purple state as purple goes. And it's relatively politically divided right on the line of ag producers versus their city cousins . And , uh, and it's kind of an interesting dance to try to figure out how to engage and influence peers , uh, in that, in that regard, especially from a policymaker's perspective, that not all of the farmers trust policymakers and not all of the farmers are, even if they like the idea , they're not willing to just jump up and down and run out and do it because they feel like that's , uh, giving credence to something that they don't believe in. And it's a challenging dynamic to be in the middle of that, which I think is extremely important in society to try to bring some of those bonds together rather than , uh, standing in isolation. And that conversation could drift a long ways. I'll just leave it like that.Speaker 5:
You you're talking about building bridges , uh , and bring people together. How, how were you able to do that and how successful has that been, do you feelSpeaker 4:
Well, the thing that I I have found is that it takes a long time to build trust. And so I , I mean, a lot of the growers in our area, I'm sure it's the same all over the west. They've got these earnest young people who come in, who are going to work the agronomist for the NRCS or the soil conservation district manager. And they stay there for a year, a couple years, and then they move on to a new job. And so it's like growers get tired of training these people and interacting with them . And it's like, okay, well , how long are you gonna be hang around? So a , a lot of it is sort of, it helps that I'm old, I think, and that I've lived here a while and it , so it's a process and it , you know, it's, it , it's been three years. I'm slowly starting to get some trust. And part of what I do is that has to do with that question. You just asked , like when I go out and, and take soil samples, I try to get to talking, pick up the soil samples for my growers. I try to get to talking with them. And someone might mention that, oh, they're thinking about cover crops. And I say, well, you really should talk to this guy cuz he's the expert on it. And like, you know, another grower was, was saying that he had a hard time with, with cover crops. And I said, well, you really should talk to Zach . You know, Zach , th because he's, he knows about that stuff that you're interested in. So, so that's what I see my, my job as is trying to, you know, find out what different people are really good at and then connecting them with each other so that they talk to each other.Speaker 5:
Right .Speaker 1:
One thing, reading your report , Elizabeth. Um, I , I liked that you made the point that things take time in agriculture , um, that things don't change quickly. And from a grower's point of view, you've got a crop a year. I mean, so to implement something new really is a , is a one year timeline. And if it doesn't work, you try to get next year, but the weather conditions are different or you didn't get enough rain . I mean, something changes. So it's, it's really hard to move things quickly. And, And it sounds like you've incorporated that learning into this, that, that maybe it didn't happen as quickly as, as you would hoped at the beginning, but you've recognized this is a 10 process project and it's a longer process than that.Speaker 4:
So , and let me To , to Elizabeth's credit, one of the tricky things in trying to add , uh , value to, to improving soil and improving agricultural production is farmers really, really don't like somebody from the government or somebody from the city to come out to their farm and tell them how to farm. Um, they just, they, they look at that as an attack, somewhat of an insult, and they don't trust that person anyway. And Elizabeth has never, ever gone to anybody's farm and told them how to farm. She just collects the data from their farming operations, unless the data speak for it. So , and that's, that's much, much more received than somebody showing up on my farm and saying, Hey, you need to quit spraying or you need to quit plowing, or you need to do all these things because that comes across as a strong insult and, and non-empathetic, and in this, in this day, it doesn't work. Yeah . And so Elizabeth has let, just let our own data speak for itself and, and done a , a very good job of compiling data in a manner that it can paint a picture without having to put a lot of , uh , opinions with it.Speaker 4:
Yeah. But Zach , one of downsides of that, I mean, you're one of the people that can look at that soil test and figure it out. And, and about half of our growers can, but the other half of 'em are having a really hard time doing that. And so we're trying to figure out how, how we could give them a very short, focused recommendation that would be in addition to the soil test, you know, and hopefully they would take it, you know, like, okay, this is free and you get what you pay for, and you can choose to ignore this if you want to , but this is what we think we could recommend, you know, based on these test results and your , your growing methods,Speaker 5:
How do you see that possibly working , uh , given what Zach said about somebody coming and saying do this, and you're, you're saying we could give recommendations. Who would that we possibly be? Well ,Speaker 4:
It would, it would be , um, me and I mean, I'm, I'm pretty limited. I'm not a soil scientist, you know, I'm, I'm a , I'm more , much more of a gardener than a farmer. And that , that's why I don't tell my farmers what to do because I don't know what to do. But also , um, a woman named Vanessa who is in charge of the local soil conservation district and , uh, another woman who, who is soil health specialist for , uh , Boulder county parks and open space. And what we were thinking is maybe the three of us could get together and try and figure out some , uh , recommendation that we could give a, to go with their soil tests . Part of , part of the problem is that, that we're still also figuring out how to interpret soil health. The three of us are trying to figure out how to interpret soil health tests, ourselves. This is fairly new to all of us. And so we don't have the, the length and breadth of experience that someone like who runs a , a soil health lab would have, you know, someone like Rick Kaney or Lance Gunderson .Speaker 5:
So you mentioned thinking about how to add some recommendations for the folks that are having a harder time, just reading the report, where else do you see the project going over the next few years, as you, as you keep going,Speaker 4:
We've seen all our data all together. You know, we have like this last year, we had a hundred different , 130 different soil samples that we were, we added to our, our , uh , database and with all our data or we're able to see trends. But when we look at individuals, growers data, we're seeing a lot of variability. We've seen a pattern in that. The pattern that we we've seen is is that the , our poor soils tend to be fairly stable and we don't see much variability in them. Our bed , water soils are where we start seeing a lot of bounciness in some of some of our , um, scores. And it's really hard to figure out we need to , um, analyze that further, look at that more and try and figure out how we can, you know, whether more time will give us more, give us better, more stable data it , or whether it's sampling methods or something else that we're doing. We we've gotta figure that piece of it out because there is a lot of variability there . My main goal is to at the end of this, have a number of people in the community who growers, who are themselves, soil health leaders, and who peers will go to and ask for advice. And, you know, will be recognized as good sources of information for people who want to improve their soil health. So that, that's where I hope to get to.Speaker 1:
I was just gonna ask Zach , where , where do you hope this goes on your ranchSpeaker 2:
In regards to my own operation, this is an effort to always make improvements, no matter what the condition is, the , the improvements need to be sustainable and objective and financially sufficient and, and socially acceptable too. And , and whether that happens, you know, as a part of Elizabeth citizens, soil health project, or if it's something that we just continue to do on our own, that that is gonna happen. I expect that every year we'll try something new and we'll see how it works. And we'll, we will learn something from that and we will apply it , uh , the next year. And we will apply it to our , uh , efforts in the community. Uh , as , as we was mentioned, early year , farming operates in crops and crops operate on an annual basis. Typically, maybe there's two crops in a year, but mostly one year at a time. And so soil health education by trial and error is an extremely slow process. And the, the results from the efforts a year ago are just now, now being shown. And now you have to make a decision for what you're gonna do in the following year. So you're always maybe two years behind your activities. And so knowing what works and what doesn't work is, is a bit anecdotal at best and maybe less than scientific, but it still helps. And it helps neighbors. Uh, I will add a little bit to this, to this picture. I am , uh , the I'm on the conservation district board for now Lara county. And I am looking at this from a local producer's perspective and saying, how can we utilize good practice to get more financially sustainable farm main going in the county so that we meet multiple objectives and those objectives are sustainable farming, but also our municipal partners are looking for improved nutrients in the rivers, improved air quality, improved water, quality, improved, open space view sheds. And so I think we can achieve a lot of these things that if we start to incentivize farmers to do it , but we also need to , we need to be slow and methodical about it, because if you just start incentivizing farmers to do practices like cover crops, or like no till , or like reduced till , or like nutrient management, you have to kind of have a plan on how that works and how , what works and what doesn't and what crops work and what crops don't and what kind of precision agriculture you need to incorporate and what kind of impacts they're gonna have throughout the life cycle of that practice. And , uh , we're looking at it and saying how , if we can establish some of these best practices that are backed by on the ground data, like what Elizabeth is collecting, then it's simpler to start accepting those best management practices than moving them into the field and saying, yes, this is why we do this is it shows improvements. And then our partners in the municipalities can utilize some of that benefit to their advantage, like nutrient trading in a river. So they don't have to spend so much money to improve their wastewater treatment plant. The farmers can , uh , reduce some of the nutrients on the river just by doing better practices that then kind of help pay for those practices. So I see it in a bigger light than just my own, but it's been, it's fun to also learn on my own and figure it out. And I , and I have a , a different perspective to farming than most generational farmers. I don't have a grandfather or a father that's gonna roll over in his grave. If I don't do something the way he did it. And I , and I don't do it on the day, he did it. And that's a big struggle for a lot of farmers in my generation that it's hard to, to make changes in an operation because grandpa might come outta the grave and thank me on the rear end for doing that. And, and it's a hard thing for those guys to do. Um , and I have that, that benefit of not having that, that in over my head.Speaker 1:
Zach , you just really laid out kind of a , a vision that you have for the area, and then both you and Elizabeth have a very clear plan and think realistically about it takes time to, to make these changes, to build the trust, to gather the data. I really appreciate you taking the time to, to talk to us both about your operation, Zach , and, and then both of you the , on the bigger picture of how the project is going in Colorado. So thank you very much for joining us.Speaker 2:
Thanks. You're welcome.Speaker 1:
All right . Have a great day. Thanks a lot.Speaker 5:
All right . You too. Thanks. Both of you. We'll be following up. Bye.Speaker 6:
Thank you for listening to fresh growth. We hope you enjoyed this episode for more information on Western Sarah grants and our learning resources visit Western sarah.org .