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Reflecting on the First Annual Urban + Small Scale Soil Health Field Day

by: Zee Elmer, Conservation Education Program Coordinator, City Sprouts


On the last Friday of July over 35 farmers, gardeners, and growers gathered at City Sprouts’ Urban Farm on 4th and Fort Street for the first annual Urban + Small-Scale Soil Health Field Day. This event was hosted by City Sprouts, in partnership with the NRCS, FSA, Nebraska Urban Soil Health Initiative, and Salt Creek Farmers Coop, to bring education and resources on soil health to Omaha-area urban and small-scale growers.


The workshops began with Aaron Hird, NRCS State Soil Health Specialist, showing attendees the importance of soil health and structure in a practical demonstration. There are numerous components to soil health that can impact our plants, one being the structure of the soil. Soil with poor structure can crumble and be eroded away by rain and wind, but soil that has good structure can withstand these conditions. Promoting good soil structure includes planting cover crops, reducing tillage, and adding organic matter such as compost.


Pictured: Aaron Hird (NRCS) discussing a soil degradation rate display with a Soil Health Field Day attendee


Following the NRCS presentation, attendees were given a tour of the City Sprouts Urban Farm by City Sprouts employees Aaron French, Edgar Romero Gonzalez, and Laura Simpson. With this being our second growing season on the farm, their work has been absolutely vital to supporting long term healthy soil. There are a number of techniques being deployed throughout the year to make sure we are caring for the land we grow on, some of which include drip irrigation, cover crops, and compostable mulch. We harvested 10,000 pounds of produce in 2022 and are excited to see how much we are able to grow this year. Our crop is donated first to Foodbank for the Heartland, and then excess is distributed to various community partners to provide fresh and local produce to as many of our neighbors as possible.


During the farm tour, three members of the City Sprouts Urban Farming Internship Fernando, Casteria, and Leo took a few minutes to discuss what they’ve learned over the course of the summer, as well as what conservation and soil health practices they have decided to implement on the Intern Field for our fall harvest. Thanks to generous funding from the Dan Gillespie Soil Health Fund, our interns have the opportunity to try out the different practices they learn about during the summer.


Some of the interns’ summer highlights included:

  • Learning about the three sisters, an indigenous companion planting practice where you co-plant squash, maize, and climbing beans. These crops benefit each other, with the beans climbing the corn and in turn affixing nitrogen to the soil while squash leaves provide shade to the soil to keep it moist.

  • Making homemade hot sauce. Along with learning about agricultural processes and conservation practices, our interns also participated in culinary classes to learn how they can use the produce we grow.

  • Helping out at the foodbank where we donate our produce. This experience allowed the interns to better understand the complete process of our urban farming operations while also seeing the real-life impact our work has.


Pictured: City Sprouts Urban Farming Interns presenting findings of their intern field trials


Following the farm tour, Nash Leef, co-owner of Salt Creek Farmers Cooperative, gave a presentation on the production, use, and benefits of biochar. After his presentation, he provided samples of biochar for all attendees to take home and use on their own soils.


Biochar is a carbon-rich material that looks and feels similar to charcoal. It is obtained from burning organic matter in a low-oxygen environment. Biochar is very light weight and porous, making it ideal for integrating into soil health practices without affecting soil’s ability to retain water while supporting a healthy soil ecosystem and soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Some research also shows that it can raise the pH level of soil to reduce acidity. The city of Lincoln was recently awarded $400,000 for their initiative to produce biochar in Nebraska, where previously it has to be shipped in from out of state. This initiative makes it possible for growers to access biochar that is locally produced, making it more accessible to incorporate it into their soil health practices.


Pictured: Hands pointing at soil testing kits, City Sprouts Soil Health Field Day


Thanks to our friends at Omaha Parks and Recreation, the event was able to move indoors to the Sherman Community Center for the remaining workshops after temperatures climbed over 100°.


After a delicious lunch catered by Big Mama’s Kitchen, the NRCS and FSA took the lead again to discuss soil health and NRCS benefits available to growers. Aaron Hird and NRCS interns gave attendees the opportunity to create their own soil grading card which can be used to identify good versus poor quality soil. This exercise helps with identifying soil that may be in need of a little extra TLC just through sense-based clues like texture, smell, and color.


Pictured: Biochar bags provided by Nash Leef


The NRCS finished up with Brach Johnson, the Nebraska State NRCS Outreach Coordinator, and Chuck Bailey, FSA Farm Records Specialist, discussing the benefits available to growers who obtain a farm number. A farm number is used to identify a tract of land as a farm for government purposes. Unlike a business number, that follows the business where they go, a farm number stays with a piece of land. Registering for a farm number allows for urban growers to count toward the agricultural census, access government funding and programs, and qualify for additional resources.


On October 12, City Sprouts will be hosting a Farm Number Registration Event where growers can learn more about the benefits a farm number would provide to their operation or go ahead and get the registration process started. Please fill out this signup form to learn more.


The final presentation of the day came from Dr. Sam Wortman on behalf of the Nebraska Urban Soil Health Initiative (NUSHI). NUSHI is formed through a partnership between the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, NRCS, and urban growers. Urban growers take plant and soil health data which is then analyzed to study the benefits of various soil health practices like using cover crops or no-till. This allows us to better understand how these principles impact soil health outside of a commercial agriculture setting. Anyone interested in getting involved in NUSHI can contact Dr. Wortman at swortman@unl.edu.


Pictured: Dr. Sam Wortman presenting at Soil Health Field Day 2023


At the end of the day, 40 growers of various experience levels were able to walk away with a new understanding of soil health principles, experience with new resources to add to their soil health practices, and opportunities to get involved with both federal and state programs. City Sprouts is proud to partner with these leaders and will continue to host events for community members to access resources and educational opportunities.


If you are interested in learning more about soil health, City Sprouts offers regular workshops in partnership with the NRCS. Our next class is on Wednesday, August 23 from 6-8 pm. You can register to attend at this link. If you have any questions, please contact Zee Elmer at zee@omahasprouts.org.



 

Interested in learning more about upcoming Soil Health + Conservation Initiatives?


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