The French connection: Climate-smart agriculture and soil health workshop

By Rafiq Islam, PhD, Soil Program Director 
Three representatives from the Ohio State University, Rafiq Islam, Vinayak Shedekar, and Alan Sundermeier, along with Jerry Grigar from USDA-NRCS were invited to organize a series of “Climate-smart agriculture and soil health” workshops by two large farmer organizations in France from March 12 to 18, 2017. This French connection is the result of the science-based knowledge exchange initiatives that brought a French delegation, David Brandt, a farmer from Fairfield County, and the Ohio State University together in 2015. As a result of continued dialogue and partnership, the associations BASE (Biodiversité, Agriculture, Sol & Environnement) (www.asso-base.fr/) and Soin de la Terre (www.soin-de-la-terre.org/) sponsored our trip to France. 

Dr. Rafiq Islam is a soil scientist who has more than 20 years of national and international research, teaching and extension experience in climate-smart sustainable agricultural and organic cropping systems with a special emphasis on no-till practice, crop rotation with cover crops, soil amendments and nutrient recycling, and soil health assessments. Alan Sundermeier is an associate professor and Extension educator at the Ohio State University with national and international expertise on no-till organic farming, cover crops, and agroecosystem services with more than 30 years of outreach and engagement experience. By profession, Dr. Vinayak Shedekar is an Agricultural Engineer and has more than 5 years of experience in agricultural water management, soil organic matter dynamics, and advanced tools and techniques in modern agriculture. He is currently serving as a Research Associate in the Soil, Water and Bioenergy Resources Program at the Ohio State University South Centers at Piketon. Jerry Grigar serves as a State Agronomist for USDA-NRCS in Michigan and has more than 32 years of national and international experience in sustainable agronomic practices. He is also a successful no-till farmer, with vast practical experience in soil organic matter modeling, strip-cropping, and slow-release nitrogen fertilization techniques.

The team travelled more than 2,600 kilometers to organize four workshops in France: Monday March 13th in Alsace, in the northwest region of France on; Tuesday, March 14th in the Dijon area; Wednesday, March 15th in the Lyon area, and Friday, March 16th in Gironville, close to Paris. On March 16 the group visited a biodynamic lab in Cluny in the mountainous region of France.  

Information was disseminated during day-long workshops through presentations and demonstrations, based on research findings and experience with organic, bio-dynamic and ecological farming systems.  Topics included: organic farming and soil health management, selecting and incorporating cover crops in organic farming systems, no-till and cover crops impact on soil health and ecosystems services, soil health balancing with organic and inorganic amendments, using a soil organic matter calculator, farmer friendly soil health assessment tools, and economics of organic farming systems.

More than three hundred farmers, educators, professors, and students attended the workshops. Several farmers from other European countries attended the workshops as well. Post-workshop survey showed about 64% of the participants were farmers, with the remainder being university students, faculty, educators, consultants and trainers. More than 71% of the participants were very satisfied with the workshop. About 67% of the participants found the soil quality field test and soil organic matter calculator very relevant to their needs. More than 74% of the participants reported that they have improved their knowledge on no-till, cover crops, and soil health. About 48, 28, and 22% of the participants reported that cover crops, soil conservation, and crop rotation are the most important agricultural management practices to improve soil health. Among the workshop participants, 37% were motivated to use crop rotation/cover crops, 22% to practice no-till, 22% will use crop rotation, cover and no-till, and 19% of them will regularly perform soil quality tests in their future agricultural planning and management practices. 

The French sponsoring organizations, BASE and Soin de la Terre, are nonprofit farmer associations that are striving to find suitable solutions, knowledge-based information, and simple, rapid and inexpensive tools for French farmers. This was a great opportunity for us at The Ohio State University to be involved in a knowledge exchange program at the international level, while expanding the college and university’s outreach to the European Union farming communities of France. The interactions with the French farmers and visits to their farms were a great learning experience for our team. This helped our team members to identify some of the local as well as global issues in relation to agricultural sustainability, socio-economics, and environmental quality. Furthermore, the interactions and feedback received from these workshops will help to assess the effectiveness of our outreach and educational methods, and help us improve upon them.